Some gave the ultimate sacrifice
Persilla Watts Cemetery, on the west outskirts of Rugby, is the final resting place of 3,350 individuals, according to Arliss Halvorson Anderson, sexton. And nearly ten percent of the graves are of military veterans, she said.
After three years serving in her current position, Anderson still finds remarkable the number and backstories of the military graves. “There are two from the Civil War,” she said, and one from the Spanish American War.” She wonders aloud how Civil War veterans ended up in the Rugby area. Perhaps they were men who homesteaded later in life, or possibly lived with family members who were homesteaders.
Of the 311 military graves, the largest number is from World War II, Anderson said, totaling 133. Next is World War I, with 31, followed by Korea, with 26, and Vietnam, with 16. Fifty-three other grave markers do not list a specific conflict or time of service, so Anderson believes they must have served in peacetime. Forty-nine military headstones do list specific units-Iowa Cavalry or Minnesota Militia, for instance-but not a particular war.
“We have one who served in the Royal Canadian Army in WW II,” Arliss said. “After the war he moved to Rugby. He asked if, when he died, he could be buried in the veterans section. Canada okayed it, and he’s buried there.”
In addition, 22 graves are designated ‘Mother of Fallen’, a practice Anderson assumes was customary after WW I, but later discontinued. “There may be veterans buried there who don’t have military markers,” Anderson said, “but I haven’t counted them.” She also knows there are graves which have no marker at all.
Every Memorial Day the Clarence Larson Post No. 23 of the American Legion in Rugby honors the memory of the veterans and mothers by placing a medallion and flag on each grave. “They put out the flags and take in the flags,” Anderson said. “It’s their discretion as to who gets a flag.”
There are at least five memorial markers in the cemetery with a name and the inscription ‘Killed in Action’ indicating the soldier died, Anderson said, but the body is buried somewhere else, possibly overseas. It is the family’s way of honoring the service of their loved one.
According to information compiled by Anderson, the cemetery saw its first burial on the land homesteaded by John F. Watts in 1887. Mr. and Mrs. Watts had moved to Pierce County from Missouri, and shortly after arriving, on May 11, 1887, Mrs. Watts passed away. She was buried on the northeast corner of the homestead. Later Mr. Watts permitted neighbors to use this portion of his land for burial purposes. In 1902 interested citizens met to organize a cemetery association and obtain land for burial lots. At the meeting Mr. Watts proposed deeding two acres to the newly-formed association, the offer was accepted, and articles of incorporation were drawn.
Over the years more land was purchased, bringing the cemetery to its current size of 21 acres. In 1933 the name was changed from Rugby Cemetery to Persilla Watts Cemetery in honor of the first person buried there.
The stone wall around the cemetery was built by Edroy Paterson, the Rugby stonemason who built many fieldstone buildings around town. Gifts from families in the community made possible the drive-through and walk-in gates, the memorial chapel, trees and shrubbery, and the water lines to enable people to keep grass and flowers looking beautiful.
Arliss said for 95 years the job of sexton has been in the Anderson family, starting with her late husband’s grandfather, John E. Anderson, in 1921. His son, Harold, and Arliss’ husband, H. Richard, who served for 50 years, preceded her in the position. “I’m the first female sexton,” she said. “Richard taught me. I had to learn where graves are and how to measure them out.”
She regularly fields phone calls and questions from people wondering where relatives are buried. Since becoming sexton she has computerized all cemetery records. “The computer helps to look up a particular person because you can have them in alphabetical order,” she said. But the books will never be eliminated because every system needs a backup, and because of their historical value.
Persilla Watts is managed by a board which meets once a year. Current members are Duane Johnston, president; Dwight Jelsing, vice president; Janet Johnston, secretary-treasurer; Anderson, sexton; and members Wanda Nielsen, Stranford Harmel, Delmer Ostrem and Jon Stork. Nielsen has served since 1975, according to Anderson, at that time replacing her mother-in-law in the position.
“We hire someone to mow the cemetery in the summer, and provide water,” Anderson said. “Anything else is basically the responsibility of the owners of the lots. It’s the family’s responsibility. We have water lines with spigots, and the hoses are there, but you must bring your own sprinkler. If a stone falls over, it’s your responsibility,” she added. “We have a pile of dirt the cemetery buys for leveling graves and families can use it, but it’s for cemetery use only.” Unfortunately, she said, only about a dozen people faithfully mow and take care of their lots.
Persilla Watts is supported by monetary donations, memorial gifts and selling lots, but there is no city or county financial support. “Sometimes people put us in their will,” Anderson noted. In addition, there is a one-time burial fee, which currently is $100.
“With the all-school reunion coming up and the fair’s 100th anniversary, we want to remind people who will be coming that we need money,” she said. Donations can be dropped off at Rugby funeral homes or sent to Anderson.
Since she has become sexton many people have talked to her about the cemetery, Anderson said. “They ask about its history, the history of the name. My main thing is to let people know about the military who are buried there, and its history. There’s lots and lots of history.”
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