Willow River Cemetery is 161 years old and in need of donationsWillow River Cemetery is older than the city of Hudson and the resting place of many of its former citizens. But Mike Miller, who grew up just down the hill from the cemetery and has cared for it for the past 20 years, is concerned about its future.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
Willow River Cemetery is older than the city of Hudson and the resting place of many of its former citizens.
But Mike Miller, who grew up just down the hill from the cemetery and has cared for it for the past 20 years, is concerned about its future.
Revenue from grave sales, burials and donations – the cemetery’s sole income – hasn’t kept up with expenses in recent years.
“We’re in a state right now where we’re going year to year. If we don’t get some sizeable donations - or some type of annual donation from a company or companies - it’s in question how long we will be able to keep going,” Miller said while giving a reporter a tour of the cemetery a couple of weeks ago.
Miller was sheepish about appealing for donations, but didn’t know what else to do.
“We’re trying to cut corners as much as we can, but it really is getting to that point where the way things have been done for the past 161 years is in question,” he said.
Once people know the situation, Miller believes they’ll be willing to contribute to the ongoing maintenance of the historic cemetery.
“With the interest that people in this community have in the cemetery, I don’t think they want to see it go unkempt,” he said. Even two weeks of neglect would be too much.
A private association
Miller said what many Hudson-area residents don’t know is that Willow River Cemetery isn’t city owned and operated. There are no tax dollars to fund operations.
Until five or six years ago, an area company provided an annual donation that paid for summer help to mow and trim the grass around the more than 10,000 graves in the cemetery.
But when the company cut back on its charity giving, the Willow River Cemetery Association was left to rely on grave sales, burials and the odd donation to pay for operations.
Miller, who lives with his family in the caretaker’s house at the corner of Wisconsin and Ninth streets, tried to do all the maintenance himself in 2010. “It darn near killed me,” he said with a laugh.
When then-caretaker LeRoy Johannsen hired Miller as a summer helper in 1979, the cemetery had a maintenance staff of four – including Johannsen and two nearly full-time employees.
This past year, Miller, who also handles grave sales and runs the cemetery office, had one part-time assistant.
“In 30 years time, we’ve cut down on the amount of help even though the place has grown substantially,” he noted.
Miller was a 15-year-old high school sophomore when he first went to work at the cemetery.
He continued as a summer and part-time employee for the next seven years through high school and classes at UW-River Falls. After completing his education at Brown Institute, he worked in radio broadcasting for a couple of years, and took the caretaker’s job when it opened up in 1991.
“I haven’t moved very far in life,” Miller, 48, said with a laugh.
The son of Bill and Lois Miller, he grew up in the house at 600 Ninth St., a little more than a block north of the caretaker’s house. Adam Bergdahl, his nephew, now owns Miller’s boyhood home.
“People look at me weird, but I say I love this place, because I’ve spent most of my life in the cemetery. So my wish is that I’m going to be here till I’m here permanently,” Miller said.
It’s named the Willow River Cemetery because Willow River is what the community that later became the city of Hudson was known as when the cemetery association was formed in 1850.
The original five acres, now called Old Willow River Cemetery, lies on the west side of Ninth Street and was purchased in 1852. Additional land on the east side of Ninth was purchased in 1880. Later, the property south to Wisconsin Street was added.
The Humbird Chapel was built in 1921 as a gift from M. Kate Humbird, a member of a prominent lumber and railroad industry family. The Soldiers Monument was erected in 1929.
A five-member board oversees the operation of the cemetery.
David Kvarnes, the president, and Jim Steel, the secretary, have been members for many years. Steel has served since the mid-1960s, according to Miller.
Hank Paulson, vice president, Ken Larson and Jim Rusch are the other board members.
The association’s annual meeting is held in the spring. The members of the association, Miller said, are the family members of people buried in the cemetery.
Gravesites currently range in price from $800 to $975, and burial fees are from $625 to $800.
Miller believes an increase in cremations, and people delaying burial of the ashes, is part of the reason for the cemetery’s revenue shortfall. The cemetery averages about one burial per week, he said.
The association is planning to expand the cemetery to the open field on the west side of Ninth Street, between the old cemetery and the caretaker’s house, within the next year or two.
Donation checks should be made out to Willow River Cemetery and mailed to the Willow River Cemetery, 815 Wisconsin St., Hudson, WI 54016. For more information, contact Miller at (715) 386-8560.