Each year over the Memorial Day weekend, small flags are placed next to the
graves of each of the 158 veterans buried in Rockford’s Fairview Cemetery.
Venita Johnson knows exactly which graves get flags. The 78-year-old, who has lived in Rockford since childhood, knows the Fairview Cemetery better than anyone.
Her knowledge springs from both a love of history and a deep connection with the cemetery where her ancestors and many of the people she knew in Rockford are buried.
For more than three decades, Johnson went to the cemetery daily, helping with upkeep and with burials.
She was one of the founders of the Rockford Cemetery Improvement Association, which back in the 1960s took over the management and care of the town’s cemetery. All these years, she has listened to the stories of the people who came to bury or visit their loved ones.
While others have taken over the day-to-day care of Fairview, Johnson has become the cemetery’s unofficial historian and rarely misses a burial.
Fairview Cemetery sits just south of Rockford, high on a windy hill that overlooks the town and provides a spectacular view of Mica Peak. There are approximately 1,870 people buried in the 13-acre cemetery, which has a well-watered, trimmed lawn sprinkled with pine trees.
Johnson calls the place God’s garden, a place of respect for all people buried there, no matter who they were in life or how they died.
“To me, the people there still speak,” she said. “I grew up here. I lived in this town 77 years. When you live in the same place, you absorb stuff.”
The pioneer cemetery was officially dedicated in 1889. No one knows when the first person was buried there, but the earliest marker is for W.H. and Ella Bennett, who died in 1886 and 1881, respectively.
Johnson wonders out loud how the two met, coming from places so distant from each other. Ella was from Portland. Her husband was from Kentucky. Somehow they ended up meeting and marrying. Eventually, they ended up next to each other in Rockford’s country cemetery.
“The people are so far apart, how did they ever get together?” she asked.
Early records show that the oldest parts of the cemetery were designed in the shape of a wagon wheel.
In the hub were families with ties to the International Order of Odd Fellows. Other graves spread out from that hub like spokes on the wheel. There are American Indians, Catholics, Protestants, soldiers who fought on both sides of the Civil War, paupers and town leaders, all buried within the cemetery’s fence.
On a windy day last week, Johnson told stories as she walked among the gravestones.
She recalled the burial in 1993 of 80-year-old Vernon Larson, who had farmed Indian land. A Native American came to the burial ceremony and stood under a tree near the grave. He raised his hand, Johnson recalls, and began a chant that honored Larson.
“It gave me the shivers,” Johnson said as she stood near the grave.
Not far away, on the side of the cemetery nearest to town, is an area with a lot of infant graves.
Four years ago, Johnson walked through the cemetery with a grieving mother who had just lost her infant daughter. The church bells began ringing in Rockford and the sound carried up to the cemetery. The woman told Johnson she wanted her daughter buried there.
“The surroundings are enough to lift your spirits,” Johnson said as she walked away from the baby’s grave.
On the other side of the cemetery, two riding lawn mowers were being used to get the cemetery’s grass perfectly trimmed for Memorial weekend visitors.
“The grass is so soft and nice. When we first started work here, the grass was thin and hard,” Johnson recalled.
An old black-and-white photograph Johnson keeps in a scrap book shows the cemetery with gravestones barely visible through the tall grass.
“It was a pathetic place for a while,” she said.
In 1967, Johnson, her husband, Oliver, and others decided something needed to be done about the dilapidated condition of the cemetery.
They formed the cemetery association, which hired Oliver Johnson to mow the grass. When her husband went to the cemetery to cut the grass, Venita Johnson would go along to clear sticks out of the way and help trim around the gravestones.
“When I first started working here, I’d always stop and read all the inscriptions on the markers. I didn’t get much trimming done,” Johnson said with a smile.
Twice during a recent tour of the cemetery, Johnson instinctively reached down to move sticks out of the way of the mowers.
In the 1970s, the Johnsons began mowing several country cemeteries in the Rockford area and began helping close graves at cemeteries all over the area.
When her husband died in 1979, Johnson continued her trips up to Fairview, often walking over a mile up the hill to get there.
She’s the only person left who has such an intimate knowledge of the cemetery, said Alene Willmschen, the association treasurer.
Last winter, Johnson helped the current caretaker organize cemetery records so that her knowledge wouldn’t be lost when she dies.
“She’s a dedicated person, I tell you. They don’t come like that anymore,” said Helen Grewe, secretary of the association. “She has a wonderful memory.”
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