Rusty Billman, superintendent of Evergreen Cemetery Association in Brainerd was recently recognized by the Association Board of Directors for 25 years of dedicated and faithful service.
Billman manages the grounds maintenance, repairs, marker placement and gravesite upkeep for more than 21,000 interments. He has had a hand in more than 2,500 burials in both Evergreen and Memorial Gardens cemeteries.
Billman became a full-time grounds worker on Feb. 16, 1989, when Edward Ebinger was the superintendent. Billman recalls having a 1969 Rambler and a gallon of gas was 97 cents. Before coming to Evergreen Cemetery Association, Billman worked as a logger in the woods, so he was used to doing things by hand.
When he started, all the grounds of Evergreen and Memorial Gardens were maintained by hand push mowers and the snowplowing blade on the old truck was manually operated.
Winter graves were opened by a frost-burner and the work was done by hand using an air hammer and bars to chisel the sides. All summer grave opening/closing was done by hand. Just 15 years ago a backhoe was purchased to open a gravesite, which then is assisted and finished by hand. Equipment improvements of riding mowers and self-propelled walk behind mowers have been the biggest changes.
Most of these improvements have occurred in recent years as the result of donations received from people who have donated to the Evergreen Cemetery Association. There were many challenges in the beginning, learning the burial site locations and using the superintendent's map.
All monuments in Evergreen run north and south, so that was helpful when in the field. Now Billman finds it challenging in sorting through old records to determine and locate vacant lots. Maintaining the aging infrastructure with the old irrigation system and the trees needing replacement are ongoing challenges.
Of course, getting ready for Memorial Day and ceremonies is an annual challenge which requires having all the equipment up and running to mow and trim the grounds. One of Billman's more memorable experiences was the funeral size, military presence and coverage from metro newspapers and TV reporters in 2006 for American airman Leo Mustonen.
Mustonen was a World War II airman who went missing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains while on a routine training flight with three other crew members in 1942. In October 2005, climbers on Mendel Glacier found his frozen body. There was a celebration of his life and return to his hometown when he was buried in March 2006 at Evergreen Cemetery next to his parents.
Another memorable happening was right after the Memorial Day ceremonies in 2001 when vandals damaged a portion of Evergreen Cemetery. There were about 15 headstones tipped over, flower pots smashed, planted flowers tossed about and flags ripped up. There were a lot of extra efforts needed to cleanup and salvage as much as possible and right the larger monuments.
“With over 40 acres in Evergreen and 15 developed acres in Memorial Gardens to cover, we do our best daily to get it all done in an efficient manner,” Billman said. “We want to make a good presentation of our work for the visitors and show reverence and respect for the people buried in the cemetery.”
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