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How do small towns like Mount Vernon maintain the memory of generations past? Donations and volunteers

Small town cemeteries face challenges in preserving history

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Jim Jorgensen pulls thistle weeds around a stone monument honoring those who have served and died on Wednesday, May 25, 2022 at the Mount Vernon Cemetery.
Adam Thury /Mitchell Republic
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MOUNT VERNON, S.D. — The dates on some of the markers at Mount Vernon Cemetery go back nearly 140 years.

In row upon row of stone grave markers, the names of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and military service members are cut into pieces of granite, along with the dates of their birth, death and sometimes inscriptions such as a favorite Bible verse. Flags adorn the stones of veterans.

They are the physical reminder of the people who lived, worked and in many cases died in and around the small South Dakota community of Mount Vernon.

“We’re proud of our little cemetery,” said Jim Jorgensen, president of the Mount Vernon Cemetery Association. “But we’re not under a city or county. It pretty much depends on donations.”

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Shown here is a headstone for Justin Ryan Muhs with toys surrounding it on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Nestled on approximately 30 acres just east of the town of 461 residents, the Mount Vernon Cemetery is the final resting place for some 1,100 individuals, and the members of the Mount Vernon Cemetery Association are the guardians of their gravestones and burial plots.

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A six-member board heads up the organization, and they and community volunteers work hard to make the cemetery a peaceful setting for those at rest and visitors alike.

It’s an important job, but it’s not always easy.

The Mount Vernon Cemetery Association operates independently, bringing in funds for cemetery maintenance through the sale of plots as well as donations, often from parts of memorials from the family of the deceased and other supporters. Without taxpayer funds brought in by a city or county, it relies heavily on those plot sales, gifts and hours of volunteer work by the association and community members to keep up the environment.

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Shown here is the headstone of Emma L. Jones who died in 1883. The oldest headstone at the Mount Vernon Cemetery on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

The costs of maintaining the property are similar to any other acreage. Primarily, landscaping and mowing are the major costs. Like many cemeteries, the association contracts out mowing duties, the cost of which continues to rise as gas and labor prices trend upward.

Then there is the upkeep of gravel pathways and gravestones themselves. The association will occasionally get donations of gravel from Mount Vernon Township, but much of the work itself is done by association members and volunteers.

“We’ve been very fortunate that families give donations every year and we have several families that have given some of the memorial money from their deceased loved ones or donated that back to the cemetery,” Jorgensen said. “We get by, but we’re not trying to make a big profit. We’re just there to have a little local cemetery.”

As Memorial Day weekend arrives, association members and volunteers have been preparing for the annual holiday ceremony that is held at the cemetery every year.

Sponsored by American Legion Post 210 in Mount Vernon, it is usually a short but earnest program, Joregensen said, but it is a yearly reminder of the sacrifice of area veterans as well as a chance for locals to remember loved ones who have passed on. It's also a weekend to be reminded of the importance of having a well-maintained cemetery.

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This year’s ceremony is planned for 9:30 a.m. on Memorial Day, Monday, May 30.

Locals are frequent visitors to the cemetery, but Jorgensen said the cemetery serves as a location of historical significance for people seeking out family roots in the area. Former residents who had since moved away long ago are often brought back to the community for burial by their loved ones.

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Shown here is a headstone that sits at the Mount Vernon Cemetery honoring those who served and died for their country on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Sometimes generations removed from family members buried at the cemetery, visitors stop in town asking where to find the cemetery.

“What’s amazing to me is we get people who grew up in the Mount Vernon area, they were probably educated in Mount Vernon, who left for 50 or 60 years who pass away and their family brings them home to be buried. That’s touching,” Jorgensen said. “Every once in a while a board member will get a call from people stopping in town saying they have family in the cemetery and can they tell them where it is. They have no connection except maybe two or three generations back. And we help find (their family members).”

Funds not put toward upkeep have gone toward projects like a directory within the cemetery that maps out burial plots for easy reference. Now the association is reaching out for donations that would help them add a missing feature that some cemeteries may take for granted: a sign designating it as the Mount Vernon Cemetery.

Linda Jones, treasurer for the association, said a fund had been set up at the CorTrust Bank branch in Mount Vernon for donations for the cemetery. She has also set up a Venmo account for donations.

“The cemetery has never had a sign. We have a sign we have in mind in the works to be erected before Memorial Day next year,” Jones said.

In Menno, a community of approximately 600 residents, the Menno Cemetery is also a point of pride for the town. It is operated through the city and is funded by taxpayer dollars, but the costs and challenges of maintaining it are as real as they are for any organization.

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During a wet year, mowing costs can pile up, said Darrell Mehlhaf, mayor of Menno.

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Gravestones at the Menno Cemetery on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Older obelisk-style grave markers can often become tilted as they settle into the soil and often require maintenance to straighten.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“It depends on the rain. In wet years we’ve been mowing once a week. We contract that out, but it goes to about $700 or $800 per mowing. It gets expensive but you can’t leave it uncared for,” Mehlhaf said.

The Menno Cemetery dates back to around the founding of the community, approximately 1879, and some of the older obelisk-style grave markers can tilt as they settle into the soil over the years. It requires labor and time to straighten them. Trees affected by insects, disease or weather damage have had to be replaced over the years. And there are asphalt pathways to keep up.

Like its counterpart in Mount Vernon, the Menno Cemetery is home to local funerals as well as an annual Memorial Day ceremony sponsored by American Legion Post 152, where community members show up in force for a speaker address, dozens of American flags fluttering in the morning May sun. This year’s ceremony is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday, May 30.

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A dove touches down on a gravestone at the Menno Cemetery Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

City employees handle work on site, and the hours can add up. But staying ahead keeps costs relatively under control, he said.

“A lot of hours go into it. If it gets too far away it becomes a huge job, but if you stay with it every year and make sure it’s in good shape it is much easier,” Mehlhaf said.

It can be a substantial budget item on the city ledger, but it’s one the city is willing to pay, Mehlhaf said. Cemeteries are an important part of the history of a community, and a well-kept cemetery can be a good indicator of the vitality of the town itself. If the community is active and alive, it cares about those community members who have passed away.

He understands the work and money that goes into maintaining a cemetery, and realizes that Menno has it better than some communities with funding support. But small-town South Dakotans tend to rally around these causes, whether it be city-funded or association-based, he said.

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An asphalt path leads through the Menno Cemetery Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Pathway upkeep is one of many expenses small-town communities face in maintaining their cemeteries.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

“You have to care for your community and show some community pride and care about the ones who went before you,” Mehlhaf said. “You show honor by taking care of their resting place.”

Jorgensen and members of his association were at the Mount Vernon Cemetery earlier this week looking over the site and pondering the work that needs to be done ahead of Memorial Day services. At one point, Joregensen stoops down to pick a few weeds from the ground. There is always something to do, he said.

Jones said any incoming donations would be put toward the new sign project, but there are some other jobs the association would like to take on as well, she said. And every bit helps.

“We manage to stay afloat, but we don’t have extra funding. We had a lot of winter kill two winters ago, and we need to reseed some grass. We’ve had a couple of bad windstorms and want to put some new trees on the south side. We have a little directory that was erected a few years ago, but that could also use some sprucing,” Jones said.

Those are future tasks to be added to the list, but Jorgensen said he, the Mount Vernon Cemetery Association, the community and its volunteers will keep at it as long as it is needed to ensure a well-kept, tranquil place for both those who have passed and those who come to remember them.

Caring for those at rest in the cemetery and their memory is important work, he said, and he’s looking forward to another Memorial Day ceremony that reminds everyone of those who have come and gone before them.

“We live in a great little community,” Jorgensen said. “(The cemetery) is a humble and peaceful setting. On Memorial Day, when you go out there and the Legion has the avenue of flags along the driveway, and the flags flying, and the MIA flag is flying, and the graves are all decorated, it’s really special.”

Donations for the Mount Vernon Cemetery can be directed to the Mount Vernon branch of CorTrust Bank or to the Linda-Jones-629 Venmo account.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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