When a family member dies, it’s common to honor them with a funeral, the spreading of their ashes or the gift of flowers, but few would go to the lengths of renovating an entire cemetery like sisters Deb Johnson and Carol English are doing.
Johnson and English began their quest to renovate Le Center’s Greenwood Union Cemetery after they had noticed it was in a state of disrepair.
My parents had passed away and we were noticing the cemetery was starting to deteriorate,” said Johnson. “Trees were rotting and starting to fall down when we went to put flowers on the grave. So we started asking questions and one thing led to another. My folks had intended on leaving some money to the cemetery so we thought we would try to collect that and start renovating.”
The Cemetery Board approved plans drawn by Blue Heron Landscaping in May to renovate the cemetery with trees and shrubbery that will border the north, east and south sides of cemetery. The west side, which borders 211th Avenue will receive a new fence.
“My folks really loved a beautiful landscape,” said Johnson. “My dad planted trees, even though he was a farmer he planted so many trees on his property and mom totally enjoyed having a well-groomed yard, so we thought it would be a lovely tribute to them.”
The Cemetery Board does not have the funding to pay for these renovations. Local cemeteries around the area have had trouble maintaining the cost of upkeep at the current $300 rate that plots are sold, so Johnson and English are asking for donations. If the project gets enough donations over the next few years, there are plans to add a seating area with benches and a historical plaque.
English is also writing a 150-page book, scheduled to be released by the end of the summer, detailing the history of the Greenwood Union Cemetery and the families buried there. All proceeds will go to the renovation of the cemetery.
“Every family has a little story,” English said.
Through a list of the people interred at the cemetery, research on ancestry.com, interviews with the families of the deceased and thorough reading books documenting Le Center’s early history, English has pieced together timelines and stories for over 200 families buried in the cemetery since 1862, dating back to when they first arrived in the US.
One of English’s favorite stories was that of a Dr. Atkins, one of the community’s early and longtime doctors.
“He was one of the first people that attended the University of Minnesota Medical School and he actually was born in England,” said English. “His father was a minister in the Church of England and they lived in a town on the south coast called Christchurch. The father had a church there for a number of years and then he was named chaplain of the hospital in Bristol and I have a feeling this is where Dr. Atkins probably got his first taste of doctoring.
Rather than study in England, for some reason he came to the states and I haven’t figured that one out. He was in Le Center until he died, until I think, in the mid-40’s. My aunt, Crystal Krenik, who I believe just turned 100 this last year, she said ‘He was my doctor. He delivered me.’”