Three groups of Swiss German Mennonites arrived in South Dakota in the summer of 1874, immigrating from the Volhynia area of Russia (today Ukraine). They left their former homes due to the loss of religious freedoms and ownership of land. Upon arriving in South Dakota, among their many concerns were finding water sources, breaking sod, and building sod homes. Wells were dug for water, but proved disappointing as some produced bitter water and soon dried up. Turkey Creek and Silver Lake were the nearest places from which to get water.
A significant number of these families were very poor after the hard winter of 1874-1875 and faced starvation. Two men from Mennonite communities in the Eastern United States came to investigate this situation after reports of these needs had been received by an “Aid Committee” there. These men saw the dire need and purchased 2000 sacks of flour in Yankton to distribute among the new immigrants, greatly easing this serious situation. By 1878 many families again were faced with starvation due to the shortage of oxen power to turn sod and the devastation of crops in 1875 and 1876 by grasshoppers. Rev. Joseph Graber and Andreas Schrag were sent to Pennsylvania to ask for a loan. $7400 @ 6% interest was acquired which helped give new hope to the struggling immigrants. These loans were all repaid in a few years.
When the Swiss Mennonites first came to this area, religious services were held in homes. The homes of Jacob Miller in the northern part of Childstown Township and Rev. Joseph Graber in Rosefield Township were the main meeting places. In 1880 it was decided to build a church in Rosefield Township Section 34 which was called the Salem Church and is the site of the present Salem-Zion church. Another church was built in 1881 in Childstown Township Section 7 which was called the Zion Church. In 1894 the Salem Church and the Zion Church congregations merged and were called the Salem-Zion Mennonite Church. In 1902 the Zion Church building was destroyed by a storm and was not rebuilt.
In 1908 a group of Swiss Mennonites left the Salem-Zion Church and built a church 2 ½ miles south. This sister church was named the Salem Mennonite Church. These two congregations became widely known as the North Church and South Church, respectively.
The Salem-Zion Church enlarged their church building in 1912, and in 1957 moved into a new church facility which is the home of our worship today.
In the year of 1875, Johann Graber was the first person buried in the SE corner of the NW quarter of Rosefield Township, section 34. This is the site of the present day Salem Zion Mennonite Cemetery. In the fall of 1878 a graveyard site was staked out at this location which would become the cemetery for Swiss Mennonites and others who were in need of a burial place.
In the early years, caskets were made of wood and constructed by Swiss carpenters or family members. Grave digging was done by friends or relatives of the deceased and the grave was closed by men attending the grave-side services. Prairie fires were a greatly feared disaster and in 1889 a fire that started in the Bridgewater area swept through the Marion area and burned up to the Hurley area. This huge fire burned the 2 x 12 wooden boards which had been used as cemetery grave markers in the Salem-Zion cemetery. During the following years, subsequent fires destroyed new and replacement wooden markers. Section 1 and a part of section 2 contains 96 known burials as well as numerous unknown burials, as non-Mennonite burials were not recorded in the Salem-Zion Church cemetery record books. In 2013 a Swiss Memorial Monument was erected in Section 1 of the cemetery to memorialize these 96 known and unknown burials.
Various improvements have been made in the cemetery over the years. Most recent improvements include the section markers, row markers, and the construction of this cemetery directory. We express our appreciation and gratitude to Maurice and Cora (Miller) Conner who have donated the funds to make these improvements possible.