Last week, semis towing large boxlike objects traveled to Preston and bulldozers emerged on Highway 52 grading slopes around three large pillars just above the Resource Recovery Center. Both facts signal the undergoing construction on the new veterans cemetery being developed in southeastern Minnesota.
Due to the wet weather at the beginning of the summer, construction on the cemetery ground to a halt in the mud. As the temperatures warmed with the sun shining down to bake the wet ground, construction workers dove into their work with a renewed vigor to make up for the lost time.
Jon Martin, solid waste administrator at the Resource Recovery Center, has been a key participant in securing the cemetery for Preston over the past several years. He is also the contact person for getting in touch with the contractors hired for the construction.
"Work has been going well up there. They got a little behind with all the wet weather we had, but they have been working hard to catch up to the schedule," Martin said.
After the groundbreaking ceremony last year, the major project was to clear away almost all of the trees.
"It was solid trees before. They were mostly pine trees that were taken down and burned. They had been planted by the county several years ago," Martin noted.
With the trees removed, the contractors began moving 300,000 cubic yards of soil. Passing the bulldozers and pillars, marking the entrance of the cemetery on Highway 52, one would travel uphill a few hundred yards on the gravel-laid road. Nearing the top of the hill, one can see the beginnings of the administration building on the area the bulldozers have been leveling off.
"It was solid rock under the administration building and had to use jack hammers to help break it up into small enough rock it could be used under the soil," Martin stated.
As the gravel ends, one can see the leftover rock that had once been in the area of the administration building. Passing the structure, the area of solid rock may have stretched around 150 yards. There was so much rock, in fact, the contractor from Chatfield, Griffin Construction, may have had to buy a new bulldozer capable of moving the rock for the project, Martin said.
"They dug down about 10 feet from the portion of the road where there is no gravel and dug another 10 feet down for the storm sewer. They were really happy to move from the rock to the soft soil," Martin commented.
Towards the middle of the construction zone stands the committal shelter that will be used year round for services for veterans who are being buried in the cemetery.
From there, the view of the construction and cemetery property is spectacular. Near the shelter is a temporary 40-foot flagpole. Eventually this pole will be replaced with two permanent 80-foot flagpoles.
As the flag snapped in the wind, Martin mentioned an interesting history of the flag used at the groundbreaking last year.
"The flag we used for the groundbreaking flew over the capital in Washington, D. C. Tim Walz brought it back," he said.
Looking out over the site from the committal shelter, one can see the vast acreage and changes the contractors have issued for the cemetery. To the north, the property line can be seen stretching to the farthest ridge on the horizon to a line of telephone wires. That area remains wooded as it is part of second phase of development that will come in the future when the cemetery needs to expand.
On the border of the first phase area towards the north, two ponds have been constructed for the water to drain from the storm sewer. There are a few trees remaining in the cemetery area. One stands above one of the ponds.
"They wanted to have natural trees still be there, so they worked around the oak tree near the pond," Martin related.
Two other trees stand across from the columbariums that are under construction for those who choose to be buried there after cremation. There will be several columns set apart at more than 90-degree angles from each other.
Looking to the back of the cemetery from the committal shelter, one will currently see a large white area spreading out before them. Upon closer investigation, one will see the vaults being installed for caskets to be buried in.
"The vaults are concrete. They sit on top of peat rock layered on top of drain tile,” Martin explained. “They will be putting peat rock between the vaults and then put about a foot to a foot and a half of sand on top of the vaults. Then they will put the soil on top of the sand and roll sod on top of the soil.”
Because these vaults will already be in place, burials can take place all year round with little disruption to the current landscape.
"When they do a burial, they will cut the sod, dig out the soil and sand and put the person in the vault. Then the sand and soil will go on top of that and the sod will be rolled out again. No one will be standing on piles of dirt or mud," noted Martin.
By Wednesday, Aug. 6, Martin estimated there to be 700 or 800 vaults that had already been laid. Since the vaults are made out of concrete, they are extremely heavy. Although one of the semi drivers did not know the exact weight of a vault, he simply knew his rig was below 80,000 pounds driving with six vaults on the trailer. He guessed one vault to be 5,000 or 6,000 pounds.
A tremendous amount of work has gone into everything that has been done up until this point. The road has been mapped out and electric lines, telephone lines and fax lines have already been plotted.
"The lines will be run on the side of the road so they will not have to dig up the road to fix a wire," Martin said.
"They have been digging three wells. One will be at the front near the administration building and two others will be near the maintenance building at the back of the cemetery,” he continued. “Both the one at the front and another at the back will be used for potable water. The other in back will be for the irrigation water. The whole cemetery will be irrigated."
As the work progresses towards the goal and the road is ready to be finished, about a foot and a half of gravel will be poured on the dirt and eventually it will be paved over. Finally, as they complete the landscaping, according to their projected plan, trees will be planted lining the road throughout the cemetery.
Of the 160 acres for the cemetery, 48 acres will be for burials.
Even with all this construction taking place, there is not much being done in plain view of passersby or even Preston residents.
"It is nice that they are working at the entrance so people can see that something is going on here," Martin commented.
"People just don't understand how big of a deal this is. The economic impact has a huge potential to be great for Preston and southeastern Minnesota. The people would stay overnight and go eat at places like the Branding Iron," he added.
Martin himself played a huge role in appropriating the cemetery for Fillmore County, being one of the three to testify before the veteran's cemetery subcommittee from Washington, D.C. Fillmore County even beat out Rochester for the veteran's cemetery.
"Rochester wanted to have the cemetery but they didn't have the land to donate. Our commissioners decided that it was a worthwhile enough investment to give the land for the cemetery," Martin noted.
If all goes as planned, the cemetery is slated to open in the spring of next year.