David Swantek, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery director in Little Falls, Minn., told over 150 Preston area residents the veterans cemetery being built in Preston is likely to become one of the most beautiful and unique state veterans cemeteries in the United States.

Swantek spoke as part of the Preston Area Foundation dinner, held last Monday, March 24, at the Branding Iron in Preston.

As he presented the plans for the incoming cemetery, Swantek instructed the audience of the history behind such cemeteries and how this cemetery came into being.

More than 150 years ago, as the United States waded through the second year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln pushed to provide a better memorial for those who were falling in service to their country.

According to the National Veteran's Association, "[O]n July 17, 1862, Congress empowered President Abraham Lincoln, 'to purchase cemetery grounds and cause them to be securely enclosed, to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of their country.' This was the first U.S. legislation to state and solidify the concept of a national cemetery."

The country at that time was in dire need of places to bury their dead. The Battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, had not yet taken place. During this battle, more than 20,000 men were killed, wounded or missing in a single day, becoming the bloodiest day on American soil.

Gettysburg also was yet to come in which there were more than 56,000 killed, wounded or missing in three days. And there were still two more years of bloody conflict remaining. Areas to bury the dead were at the very least a necessity.

But prior to Lincoln's terms, dead had been buried right where they had fallen. Some were only buried a few inches under ground. Others in battlefields, like the site of the first Wilderness Campaign, lay in the open for the soldiers fighting in the second campaign battle a few years later to rediscover while stumbling through the woods. Some of these dead may have been friends of those who found them again.

After the war, a concerted effort to identify remains and take them to national cemeteries began. Over the next 100 years, cemeteries expanded to 10 foreign countries, soldiers dying overseas could be shipped back to the United States and qualifications for being buried in the cemeteries were amended.

With the goal of providing an historical marker of the sacrifices of the veterans and to fulfill President Lincoln's promise, Minnesota began undertaking the project of state veteran's cemeteries. In the late 1980s, two World War II veterans discovered that Minnesota had passed legislation for the state veterans cemeteries in 1987. With this in mind, the men located a piece of property and raised funds for its purchase. However, they did not receive the adequate amount, so the property was returned.

Undeterred, veterans continued searching for more funding and built a solid foundation in the Legislature. In 1994, the first state veteran's cemetery in Minnesota in Little Falls was founded. After seeking funds from a national cemetery grant, the Little Falls facility helped the state recognize the need for the state veterans cemeteries.

In 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty initiated the search for a site for another state cemetery in Duluth. A year later a proposal was made for constructing not one, but two state cemeteries to keep other areas in the state from being left out. The next year areas in southwestern and southeastern Minnesota were being considered.

At first, a grant was given for a cemetery in the southwestern portion of the state. However, the search continued for other land suitable for the cemetery on both parts of the state. Many areas were reviewed, but a suitable place proved hard to find.

In 2010, the idea was presented to the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners in Preston. Several people in the area expressed interest in donating their land, but legislation still had not given approval for the cemetery to be in the southeast part of the state.

Fillmore County began working with then Sen. Sharon Erickson-Ropes, who was a big proponent, and Rep. Greg Davids. Sen. Jeremy Miller, defeating Erickson-Ropes in the next election, continued on with Davids to begin legislative action to acquire the veterans cemetery. The campaign proved successful and Fillmore County gained the second veterans cemetery in the state.

Prior to construction, Swantek brought four members of the National Cemetery Administration to the site and inspected the area. Because of its location, they declared it will likely become the best state veterans cemetery in the United States because of its beauty and uniqueness. In fact, they hesitated in using the site because of the beauty.

Of the 169 acres to encompass the whole cemetery, the initial construction and facilities include only 28 of them. There will not be a traditional committal at this cemetery. Rather there will be a central location for all committals, although this does not mean one cannot go to the gravesite for closure. The facility would then be adequate to perform 450 to 500 burials per year.

At the entrance, there will be a monumental entryway so it will be hard to miss. The goal is for families and visitors to sense they have arrived at someplace very special. The cemetery itself will be maintained as if it were a golf course.

"The impact on your community will be huge. Look at the cemetery as a monument to veterans, not just a cemetery," Swantek stated.

Construction started in October, shutting down again in December. Much of the work done last fall was removing trees to provide land enough for the first 10 years of burials. Swantek's hope is to have substantial completion in December of this year, with staffing and administration jobs filled, and the opening to take place in the spring of 2015.

The economic impact of the cemetery will also be large. "Currently, a company in Chatfield plays a big part in the construction, costing $8.2 million. We will buy locally as much as possible and hire full-time staff in the area through the state," Swantek related. "Because of the cemetery, thousands of people will come to the community who would not normally have visited the area. Over the years, many people will stop here to buy gas, eat and rest."

Swantek emphasized the state's commitment to honor the veterans who have served this country and sacrificing so much in the course of freedom. "We will provide a place for burial and try to honor Abraham Lincoln's promise to give veterans a place to rest honorably," he said. "The 169 acres in Preston are now hallowed ground dedicated in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln as he did with his Gettysburg address 150 years ago."