IN A RURAL CEMETERY in unincorporated Cannon City some five miles northeast of Faribault, a chain link fence separates gravestones from fields.
Here the wind blows strong among spruce and cedar trees branching over gravestones. For a century and a half now, mourners have come to this place of solitude and grace to bury, grieve and remember loved ones. The cemetery was founded 150 years ago, an occasion which will be noted during the 2 p.m. Memorial Day program here on May 29.
I first discovered this place and this annual May tribute, in 2011. Nearly every year since, I’ve returned to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America, the Beautiful” and other patriotic songs; to listen to the reading of “In Flanders Fields,” “The Gettysburg Address” and more; to appreciate the mournful playing of taps; to gaze toward the flag whipping atop the flag pole; and to walk among tombstones.
I have no personal connection to this cemetery. But I am drawn here by the rural-ness of this setting, by the simplicity of the ceremony, by a desire to honor the war dead at a truly grassroots Americana Memorial Day observance among people rooted deep into this land. It doesn’t get much more basic than this informal and unpretentious gathering in lawn chairs, song sheets passed around with Don Chester strumming a rhythm on his guitar.
Fifty veterans—including one from the War of 1812 and 20 from the Civil War—are buried here. Their names are read each Memorial Day. It was Civil War veteran Elijah Walrod who first suggested a Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) program to Cannon City School teacher Chloe Gagstetter Polson. She honored his request some 100 years ago when school children marched with floral wreaths from the schoolhouse to the nearby cemetery. That tradition, which included a picnic following the ceremony, continued until the school closed in 1970 to become part of the Faribault School District. The Cannon City Cemetery Board carried on thereafter.
This year the Cannon City Cemetery Friends will note the cemetery’s 150th anniversary by distributing flowers and flags to attendees for placement on veterans’ graves. Typically those American flags are placed in advance of the commemoration. There will be no “Death March” from the old schoolhouse, now the town hall, to the cemetery. Rather, everyone will meet at the cemetery gates. And after the program, organizers will serve ice cream cones.
The low-key anniversary observance seems fitting in a place where children dart among gravestones, birds trill and folks greet each other with the familiarity of growing up here. They know and value this place.
Tradition, says Cemetery Board Secretary Mel Sanborn, brings locals and natives back each Memorial Day “to honor veterans and loved ones buried here.” Sanborn has three aunts and uncles buried here and his own plot purchased already.
Most who come here on Memorial Day share links of blood and/or roots. Not me. But I still feel at home here, comfortable in this rural cemetery where, on this day in late May, I am simply an American remembering those who died in service to our country.
FYI: The Cannon City Memorial Day program begins at 2 p.m. Bring your own lawn chair. The cemetery is located off Rice County Road 20. Look for the cemetery sign and follow the gravel road to the cemetery.
© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Vintage photos are courtesy of Mel and Mary Sanborn.