Gertrude "Sis" Risnes is proud to be a member of the Pine Ridge Cemetery board in Pine River, and it's highly possible she inherited that pride from grandmother Nora Kline, a woman who helped raise funds sometimes pennies at a time to make the cemetery what it is today.
Kline was a proud member of the Pine River community until her death in 1961 at age 92. She had several passions. Some may recall her love of the American flag and how she went to bat upon reading that businesses in Brainerd one year were not using flag poles in their sidewalks because of ice build up, whereas the businesses in Pine River didn't let that stop them.
Possibly the only thing she supported more fervently was the Pine Ridge Cemetery. Risnes said her grandmother had a fascination with properly honoring the dead since she was young. Among diaries, receipts and other personal affairs in Risnes' possession today are evidence of this early fascination, including a quote from Benjamin Franklin.
“To know the character of a community, I need only to visit the cemetery,” Franklin once said.
“She was interested in it since she was young. Honoring the dead was just her way,” Risnes said.
Kline took that to heart, joining the cemetery board upon its formation in 1941 and dedicating a great deal of personal time and effort to make sure that the cemetery was not only a beautiful, honorable resting place, but also accessible when a property owner near today's Dollar General tried to close off the road to the undeveloped property that someone had donated for use as the cemetery.
“He was going to close the approach to the cemetery so they couldn't go in,” Risnes said.
Kline worked with Don Lundrigan, then a young lawyer, and tried to buy a small section of the land, enough to keep access open, for $10.
“He laughed at them and said absolutely not,” Risnes said. “He wanted $100.”
Kline collected money to go toward that purchase, often cents at a time, to buy the land near the entrance. Risnes said Kline's diary is full of accounts of the many people donating 50 cents at a time. They felt themselves lucky when a family member in Alaska donated $10. It took time, but apparently the fundraising was successful. That's even more astonishing when one considers Kline had no car and she did her collecting mostly on foot.
Risnes was a married adult then and she and other family members offered Kline rides whenever they could, but she still spent an amazing amount of time on foot.
It was likely inevitable that her own family should become as passionate about memorializing the dead. Some of her descendants have gone into the funeral business, and Risnes has been a member of the cemetery board on multiple occasions now.
Risnes, known as Sis to many, has lived in Pine River nearly constantly since sixth grade. She was once likely a familiar face at Carl's Market where she worked part time, and then full time for many years. She was part of the local school board, election boards and other groups. She knows many people in the community where she prides herself to be a member.
“The town has been wonderful to me and all the people in it. They still are,” Risnes said. “People have been good to me and I know it's because I've been good to them.”
Like her grandmother, Risnes considers people's state of interment important and it disappoints here when the graves and markers in Pine Ridge are dirty and uncared for.
“We don't expect them (family and friends) to fix them up or anything, but at least show up and act like they miss the people there and know them,” Risnes said.
In recent years a new surge of members on the cemetery board has helped Risnes to get excited about Pine Ridge once again.
“The biggest project we have done has been recently because nothing has been done for years,” Risnes said.
In just recent years there have been more groups involved in cleaning the cemetery, including scout troops and youth groups. There have been fundraising efforts and large landscaping and maintenance projects.
“I'm so proud of the cemetery,” Risnes said. “I'm always so proud of these kids that come. When we get scouts or kids to work at the cemetery that is so nice of them. They have been doing that and helping us out. We're beginning to get such a good group of younger people back. All those people are so involved. It's really good for Pine River.”
Risnes said she wants to live to 100, so she doesn't plan to become a resident of Pine Ridge any time soon.
“That's what mom did. She set a goal and made her goal and I can do that too,” Risnes said.
That being said, if the local passion at the Pine Ridge Cemetery keeps growing, it's possible she will get to see some of her hopes come true.
“I hope people would get involved and feel it's something we must keep up and keep going,” Risnes said. “You forget about them and pretty soon they are gone. It's almost like they haven't been there. It's important we came here in the first place. We're important and shouldn't be forgotten.”