It’s the little cemetery that refuses to die.
Hillyard Evergreen Cemetery has been put up for sale as prime industrial land, abandoned by its owners and caretakers, and altogether led a rough-and-tumble life for the last part of the more than 100 years it’s been around.
On Saturday, a group of Rogers High School students descended on the hilly graveyard with rakes, tarps, shovels and saws, clearing off large branches and other debris left behind after bigger trees were logged on the site.
“I saw the cemetery when I drove by with my dad,” said Kaitlynn Stirling, 17. “We decided to look into it and see if we could do a service project here.” Stirling is part of Rogers High School Interact, a Rotary club for youth ages 12 to 18 based at the school. Together with Khoi Ha, 17, she set about getting volunteers together for the cemetery cleanup.
“We like to help the underdog,” said Ha, when asked why the cemetery seemed like a good project. “We do a lot of public service. This was a good fit.”
Roger Wilson from the Aurora Northwest Rotary Club helped get the students together – and made the necessary food runs.
“You wouldn’t think it was possible to get them all moving in the same direction,” Wilson said, looking at the 45 students spread out over the 14-acre site. Wilson said he’d like to make the Hillyard Evergreen Cemetery a regular Interact project.
“Maybe we can come out once a month or something?” Wilson said.
That sounded like a great offer to cemetery director W. Paul Manly and the two immediately looked for calendars to coordinate.
Manly never imagined he’d be the new cemetery caretaker when members of Hillyard VFW 1474 formed the Hillyard Evergreen Cemetery Association and acquired the deed for the graveyard in 2012.
“We did some logging here and made $7,000, which will go toward ordering 50 grave markers,” Manly said. “Part of the logging deal was that we had to do the cleanup.” VFW 1474 has been the main cemetery caretaker since the late 1980s, and Boy Scout troops and many other civic organizations have helped clean it up over the years.
There are about 400 graves at the cemetery, which is just north of Hillyard and west of Market Street. Among them are a dozen marked Civil War soldiers’ graves and many more Civil War graves that are missing headstones.
Manly and the cemetery association have been trying to get appropriate military headstones for all the Civil War graves, but that has proved a difficult task.
“They’ve changed the rules on us a few times,” Manly said. “Now we must have a direct descendant of the soldier sign papers before we can get a stone.”
He’s heard from some relatives with family buried at the cemetery, but not many.
“It’s been slow going,” Manly said, adding that the cemetery doesn’t order a marker for a grave they know nothing about except a name.
“The last list of markers we have is from the 1960s,” Manly said.
Stirling and Ha said initially it was a little difficult to get their friends interested in helping out on the cemetery cleanup.
“We had a hard time recruiting people at first because they were skeptical about a cemetery,” Ha said. “But now they think it’s cool.”
Rogers students from the Key Club and ROTC also participated in the cleanup.
“We are hoping to get as much done as possible before Memorial Day,” Wilson said.