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“Now we have a place to lay our own in southeast Minnesota”

Fri, Oct 18th, 2013
Posted in Preston Features

Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud hands the deed for the future veterans cemetery land to Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs Deputy Commissioner Reggie Worlds. Photo by Karen Reisner

The tone set by many people who spoke at the county board’s formal transfer of deed from Fillmore County to the State of Minnesota Veteran Affairs was one of thanks to everyone involved. The successful four year journey to this day was the result of a cooperative effort and there was a feeling of celebration. The October 15 event was moved to the court room to accommodate the crowd of nearly 100 people.

Commissioner Marc Prestby was not in attendance due to the death of his father. It was noted that Prestby’s father was a veteran.

Commissioner Chuck Amunrud reminisced that it all started about four years ago with a conversation. Senator Sharon Erickson-Ropes and Amunrud had a conversation at the State Capitol. She had just read a National Cemetery Association study on the need for regional veterans cemeteries. Amunrud said she recognized the need in this area and approached him with comments and questions, asking what it would take to put a veterans cemetery in southeast Minnesota.

A minimum of 40 usable acres was required. The county board by consensus gave the go ahead for a feasibility study of the County Farm. By early 2010 discussions started about donating approximately 153 acres of the county’s farm. Commissioner Duane Bakke explained that the county purchased the farm land in the mid 1980s with the intention of putting a land fill on it. It turned out to be a poor location for a land fill. The farm was put up for sale about 10 years ago but only the back side was sold.

In 2010, 28 resolutions of support came from Legion, VFW, and Auxiliary groups and cities throughout the county to donate the land for the cemetery. Rep. Greg Davids said it was amazing the way the communities came together. There was also support from surrounding counties.

Legislators worked over a couple of years to put the Fillmore County farm on a priority list to get this cemetery built. Davids noted that language was added during the 2011 July special legislative session to make Fillmore County the priority site in southeast Minnesota.

In 2012 a congressional hearing was held in Preston on the project. During 2013 it all started to really come together beginning with approval from state legislators for funding in the amount of $400,000 for cemetery planning. Then a building permit was granted and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs approved the beginning of the bidding process. The county approved a warranty deed to the state and a purchase agreement for the donated land. Finally, it was announced on September 26 that a $10 million federal grant for the construction of the cemetery had been awarded through the Department of Veteran Affairs. It is expected to take up to 18 months to complete the initial development.

Once the cemetery is open, the state will operate and maintain it. David Swantek, Little Falls Cemetery Director, stated it would provide five to six full time state jobs.

Former Veterans Service Officer (VSO) Nathan Pike says he often hears the question, “When is this going to happen?” With a plan to break ground in a matter of weeks Pike maintained, “Now we have a place to lay our own in southeast Minnesota.”

Fillmore County VSO Jason Marquardt and Dodge County VSO Todd Nelson both spoke. Marquardt said he is still in the Army and knows what it feels like to wear the uniform. Nelson said the veterans he works with want to be buried close to home with their brothers in arms, adding it is a great day for Fillmore County and they should be very proud.

Reggie Worlds, Deputy Commissioner of Veteran Affairs, declared, “It is finally happening.” He said Senator Ropes was very adamant about this being the next location for a state veterans cemetery. Worlds suggested that the flag draped coffin and dignified burial is what veterans want most. Veterans provide the freedom that allows the debate to continue and they also protect our way of life to insure it continues today, tomorrow and forever. Worlds believes this cemetery will become one of the flagship facilities in the nation.

Swantek maintained “this will be the finest State Cemetery in the United States, without question,” adding he was honored to be a part of it. The cemetery is expected to serve veterans for more than 100 years, providing space for about 40,000 veterans. The cemetery should serve veterans in southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa, and southwest Wisconsin. Initially, development will include the building of the administration and public information center and another structure where burial services will be held. Necessary infrastructure, above ground areas for cremated remains, and grave sites for the first 10 years will be part of the original development of the cemetery. The rest of the cemetery which includes a total of about 169 acres will be developed in stages.

The entrance of the cemetery will be marked with a sign that reads “Southeastern Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery.” The cemetery will overlook the Root River Valley and provide a spectacular view. Local veterans organizations will be asked for volunteers for honor guards.

Former Senator Ropes, a Navy nurse, said the cemetery wouldn’t be happening without the cooperation of the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners. She praised them for going to the people first before agreeing to give away the land. Ropes added they had to fight the big cities to get the cemetery here in rural Minnesota.

Later in a conversation with Sharon Ropes, she insisted Washington D.C. should take a lesson from Fillmore County. Here, we all worked together to do the best thing for our home towns.

Senator Jeremy Miller thanked Ropes for getting the ball rolling before he was elected in November 2010. Miller expects the cemetery to have a huge economic impact in Fillmore County and the city of Preston. A lot of people will be brought into the community. Miller added it will be the most pristine Veterans Cemetery in the country.

Former State Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Steve O’Connor summed up the feelings of many of the veterans in attendance that it was a long time coming, calling it an emotional day. He said it really is something special knowing you can be interred with brothers and sisters that shared your experience.

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