Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring the war dead in Cannon City May 30, 2017

Folks begin arriving for the 2 p.m. Memorial Day program at the Cannon City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

VEHICLES LINED the narrow gravel driveway, angled into the grassy ditch on one side and edging the roadway on the other.

Randy pulled our lawn chairs from the van and I tucked a fleece throw under my left arm, umbrella in hand as we headed toward the crowd gathering at the Cannon City Cemetery gate. Clouds the color of bruises threatened rain on this 60-some-degree Memorial Day afternoon in rural southeastern Minnesota.

 

An art appropriate cannon marks a Civil War Veteran’s tombstone in the Cannon City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

But weather would not keep us from this annual commemoration honoring the war dead—a tradition begun some 100 years prior in this wind-swept rural cemetery bordered by fields and pasture. On this Monday, those here would also mark the sesquicentennial of this burial place where a year ago cows moved to the fenceline to watch my friend Lois bury her husband next to his parents and grandparents.

 

The program opens with singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Steve Bonde is on the bugle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Randy and I have no family connection to this cemetery. But we have come here each Memorial Day for about the past five because we appreciate the grassroots simplicity of this event. Clustered under spruce and cedar among gravestones, attendees circle their lawn chairs to sing and to listen to patriotic and other readings and to the mournful playing of taps.

 

A bronze star marks a veteran’s grave. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As I sat there, snugged under fleece and wishing I’d worn a stocking cap, I considered that my temporary discomfort was nothing compared to war. I remembered the stories my Korean War veteran father, an infantryman on the frontlines, shared of bone-chilling cold. Yes, my ears hurt. But in a short time, I would be back inside my warm home.

I am an observer. To my right, I watched a teenage boy grip a military star, American flag and white carnation with his left hand, bugle in his other hand, as the fierce wind threatened to yank all three away. Earlier, some attendees distributed flowers, provided by the Cemetery Association, to soldiers’ graves. That flower-laying tradition began 100 years ago with students from the nearby Cannon City School marching with floral wreaths to the cemetery.

 

Song sheets are distributed to those in attendance. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This memorial service is so much about tradition—from recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance to singing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic to reading names of the 52 veterans buried here to recitation of In Flanders Fields.

 

Poppies have long been associated with honoring and remembering veterans. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As Jean Pederson recited the haunting poem of poppies blowing between crosses in a field in Belgium, long-time Cannon City resident Bob Lewis slipped a pot of poppies onto the grass next to Jean’s motorized scooter. He’d dug them from a patch in his yard. That symbolic gesture by this veteran nearly moved me to tears as I watched 10 orange poppies wend in the wind to words of war.

Near Jean, I noticed the word LOVE sparkling along the pant leg of a teenage girl. Love and war. War and love. We love our freedom enough to fight for it.

 

A message on a retro tray I own. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Yet, we always strive for peace, a message conveyed in a reading by two women: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with you.” Their words rose and fell with the wind, carried away—to the fields, the countryside, beyond, under a bruised sky.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
I apologize for the lack of current photos accompanying this story. I fell and broke my right shoulder recently so am unable to use my camera. I hope my words provide the visuals for you to see snippets of what I observed in Cannon City on Memorial Day.

 

A grassroots Memorial Day observance at a 150-year-old rural Minnesota cemetery May 25, 2017

The Cannon City Cemetery fence decorated for Memorial Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

IN A RURAL CEMETERY in unincorporated Cannon City some five miles northeast of Faribault, a chain link fence separates gravestones from fields.

 

A snippet of those gathered for a past Memorial Day program, including Jean Pederson, left, who recited “In Flanders Fields,” and others who led the program. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

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.

 

Song sheets are distributed to those in attendance and then collected at the end of the program. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

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.

 

This shows a portion of those gathered during a past Memorial Day program. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

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.

 

Memorial Day long ago in Cannon City.

 

The former Cannon City School, now the town hall.

 

A vintage newspaper clipping about Memorial Day in Cannon City.

 

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.

 

Veterans graves are marked with flags on a previous Memorial Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

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.

 

In 1973, the Cannon City Cardinals 4-H Club participated in the program.

 

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.

 

The program opens with singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Steve Bonde is on the bugle. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

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.

 

Bob sings as Don and Judy Chester lead the group in song. Bob attended Cannon City School and participated in Memorial Day programs here as a student. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

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.