Garrison Keillor and the Elmer brothers: The History of Prairie Home Cemetery

Moorhead Historic Preservation Walking Tour

Garrison Keillor and the Elmer brothers: The History of Prairie Home Cemetery

Moorhead, Minnesota 56560, United States

Created By: North Dakota State University


Under the leadership of Rev. Oscar H. Elmer and a local cemetery association, the Prairie Home Cemetery was founded in 1875. A motivating factor behind forming a cemetery association was that Rev. Elmer's brother and pioneering Brainerd, Minnesota lawyer John Edgar had drowned in the Sheyenne River after visiting his brother in May of 1874, apparently committing suicide due to suffering from some type of “nervous difficulty.” John Elmer's body was in poor condition when it was recovered from the river, so Rev. Elmer buried John Edgar in a make-shift grave until he could secure funds for a proper coffin and burial location. The following spring as the flooding subsided, Rev. Elmer needed to move his brother's remains to a more secure location closer to Moorhead, and so organized a cemetery association to meet the needs of the growing (and dying) Moorhead community. Upon completion of this, John Edgar Elmer's body was then relocated to the new Prairie Home Cemetery and re-buried as one, if not the first 'occupant' in 1876. The grave site still exists to this day, just across the street from the Concordia college campus.

The history of the cemetery does not end there, however. Apparently, the famous and well-loved Minnesota radio show Prairie Home Companion owes the location (and the Elmer brothers) for its' namesake. According to the Prairie Home website, Garrison Keillor, well-known American author, humorist and the host of the radio show, encountered the Prairie Home Cemetery "after a reading at Moorhead State University in 1971, which was followed by a wild party at Mark Vinz's house, after which the partygoers took Garrison Keillor to the train station and sang "Red River Valley" on the platform as the eastbound Empire Builder pulled in about 2 am. The name of Prairie Home Companion came from that memorable evening, as close as Garrison Keillor can remember: "You couldn't name a show Prairie Home Cemetery, so I substituted Companion for Cemetery, in honor of the people on the platform."


  1. Keillor, Garrison, and Ken LaZebnik. 2006. A Prairie Home Companion: The Screenplay. New York: Penguin.
  2. Oscar H. Elmer Papers, MS 245. Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, Fargo.
  3. (Accessed 10/31/16).
  4. (Accessed 10/31/16).

This point of interest is part of the tour: Moorhead Historic Preservation Walking Tour


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