Stewards of Elk River’s Vernon Cemetery worry about the future, as the revenue stream lags

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

Since the 1850s, people have been laid to rest in Elk River’s Vernon Cemetery, where stately trees stand watch over the graves of Civil War veterans, early Elk River leaders and modern-day citizens alike.

But now, its current stewards worry about the future.

“We promised the folks that are buried there that we would take care of it in perpetuity and, unless things change, we won’t be able to fulfill that promise,” said Bob Nickerson, the cemetery’s president who has many ancestors buried there. “That’s our fear, that someday we might have to say, ‘We can’t do this anymore’ and somebody is going to have to take over. I’m sure the city is not interested in buying a cemetery. So, then, who takes care of it?”

He and his wife, Roberta, said the cemetery is running out of money. Located at 30 Evans Ave., Vernon Cemetery does not receive funding from the city of Elk River, any funeral home or any government agency. It is managed by a board of directors consisting of Bob Nickerson (president), Lynn Caswell (vice president), Ken Warneke (treasurer) and Roberta Nickerson (secretary). Don and Sharon Syverud are the caretakers.

The cemetery is funded by the sale of burial plots. But fewer people are purchasing burial plots, as more people are being cremated and not all of those are being buried.

The Nickersons say other factors are also at work including low interest rates which affect the cemetery investments, the cemetery’s lack of visibility and its proximity to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Meanwhile, the cemetery continues to have costs that need to be covered including maintenance, insurance and preparation of sites for burial.

“It’s just gradually running us down until there’s not a lot left to keep it up, and it’s something that really does need to be kept up,” Roberta said.

The cemetery board is working to increase awareness of the cemetery, which is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood west of Highway 169 and south of Main Street. A sign on Main Street used to point the way to the cemetery, but it’s missing. They hope to have it reinstalled.

New brochures outlining the cemetery’s rich history, lot purchase information, funding concerns and donation opportunities have also been printed.

Letters requesting donations have been sent to family members of people buried in the cemetery and to those who own burial plots.

The cemetery board also hopes to sell a piece of land across the street from the cemetery. It’s large enough for one or perhaps two houses or a duplex.

Many lots are also still available at Vernon Cemetery and traditional as well as cremation burials are welcome.

“It’s just a gorgeous site,” Bob Nickerson said of the cemetery.

“And it’s always well kept,” Roberta Nickerson added.

Rising cremation rates

The challenges facing Vernon Cemetery are similar to those facing some of the other cemeteries in the state, according to Ron Gjerde. He is the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries and recently retired president of the Lakewood Cemetery Association in Minneapolis.

“The future is very challenging for cemeteries with the increasing trend toward cremation,” Gjerde said.

The cremation rate was just 2 percent in Minnesota in 1970, but today it exceeds 65 percent and is continuing to rise, he said.

That’s a problem for cemeteries because less than a quarter of cremated remains end up in a cemetery, he said. Some are scattered. Others are buried in a non-cemetery location like at a family cabin. In other cases families keep the ashes.

Gjerde believes cost and convenience are the primary drivers behind the increasing numbers of cremations. Gjerde said there’s nothing wrong with cremation and he will probably choose that for himself. But if he does, he said he will also be permanently memorialized in a cemetery.

He said cemeteries offer two things: permanence and memorialization.

“There’s something tangible,” he said. “You’ve got to think about the future generations and the recorded history there.”

Land of 10,000 cemeteries

No one knows exactly how many cemeteries there are in Minnesota, but Gjerde said the “guesstimate” is well over 10,000 of them.

“We probably have more cemeteries than we do lakes,” he said.

Some struggling cemeteries have reached out for help. The owners of Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis offered the cemetery to the city, but it declined to take it, Gjerde said. In another case, the Worthington Cemetery obtained some funds from the city of Worthington and Nobles County to help cover a shortfall.

“You hate to see them fall into a state of abandonment,” Gjerde said. “Somebody has to take care of the graves of these people. That’s the respectful and necessary thing to do.”

Cemetery landowner, John Quincy Adams Nickerson, was key leader in early Elk River

John Quincy Adams Nickerson, Bob Nickerson’s great-great-uncle, owned the wooded tract of land that became Elk River’s Vernon Cemetery.

Bob and Roberta Nickerson said the general public had used the property for burials because it was situated on a hill commanding a beautiful view of the Mississippi River and surrounding area.

The cemetery got its name in 1876 after John Quincy Adams and Julia Nickerson’s son, Vernon, drowned in the Mississippi on March 31, 1872, at the age of 2 years, 11 months and 3 days. He was buried on the quiet site. A tombstone bears the poignant inscription, “Mama’s nice little boy gone home.”

J.Q.A. Nickerson wanted to dedicate the property to his son’s memory and it has been known as Vernon Cemetery ever since.

J.Q.A. was one of the early settlers of Elk River, according to his obituary in the Sherburne County Star News. He was born in New Salem, Maine, in 1825. In 1849, he came west and spent four years at St. Anthony before settling in Elk River, where he lived until his death in 1917 at the age of 91. His last home was located at the northwest corner of Highway 169 and Main Street, where the Speedway gas station now stands.

Bob Nickerson said J.Q.A. was on his way to the gold fields when he decided to stay in Minnesota. Settling in Elk River, he purchased a hotel from Pierre Bottineau. The Riverside Hotel was located where Elk River Lutheran is now.

He also started a farm, was involved in the lumber business and owned a general store for a time.

J.Q.A. was appointed the first postmaster of Elk River in 1853. He also served in a number of town and county offices and in 1876 was elected county treasurer, a post he held for several terms.

“At one time he was the town sites proprietor for Elk River — in other words he was here first. In fact, I have a map of Elk River when it was called ‘Quincy,’” Bob Nickerson said.

The street in downtown Elk River now known as King Avenue was also named Quincy at one time, he said.

He married Julia Farnham, also a native of Maine, in 1852. He was survived by three daughters and one son.

J.Q.A. was buried in Vernon Cemetery.

“Mr. Nickerson was always an active, energetic worker, and in all positions of trust fulfilled his duties in a manner satisfactory to all,” according to his obituary.

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