One mans dream to preserve a 143-year-old church and cemetery in the foothills overlooking Denver

Steve Engle went through four lawnmowers while fighting the waist-high grass and weeds covering the Historic Rockland Community Church and Cemetery in the foothills west of Denver.

With rebar and gravestones hidden by overgrown plants, the mowers would catch obstacles and break as Engle tried to uncover the 19th-century cemetery.

“I couldn’t push them. Everything was pushing,” Engle said, pointing at the hillside cemetery. “Imagine doing that.”

For 15 years, Engle has been busy maintaining the grounds and combing through documents in an effort to restore the historic site in Genesee. With gravestones inconsistently marked, the project required Engle to scour records and historic newspapers to identify the occupants of graves.

The Historic Rockland Church has not been in regular use since 1960, when the congregation moved up the road to its current location. But Engle and the community are preparing for Rockland’s annual Memorial Day service and reception this weekend, 143 years after the original church was constructed in 1879.

After years of restoration work, the Memorial Day event is one of only two held each year at the site, alongside a Christmas service.

Among the 162 people buried at the small cemetery are many veterans, from those who served in the Civil War through to the Korean War, their tombstones marked by Engle with small American flags.

Engle first came upon the historic church and cemetery as a thesis project while working toward a master’s degree in history at the University of Colorado Denver. He hoped to renovate the site, which was in bad shape, with overgrown plants and aging gravestones, while lead paint was chipping from the church and the pews were missing.

After approaching leaders in the church, which Engle attends, they happily agreed to let him restore the site.

“The flatstones were buried. I dug that one out and I dug that one out,” Engle said, pointing to grave markers that lay flat on the ground. “All the flatstones were covered.”

Engle tackled the renovation through a detailed list of projects, with help from community members and volunteers through Jefferson County Justice Services, which offers alternative sentencing options for offenders,

They brought electricity into the church for the lights, built parking spaces out in front and replaced pews were after the original benches were burned regularly by the congregation for warmth decades past, in lieu of a heating system.

With each project, Engle sunk his personal money in alongside community funds he raised from friends and family, totaling about $100,000 so far.

“Anything I try to do costs more than ever it should,” Engle said.

Telling a historic cemetery’s story

Engle, as part of his thesis, worked with Sid Platt, a historian for the site, and Shirley Johnson, the Rockland Community Church’s newsletter editor, to compile the story of the cemetery and those buried there.

Going through Colorado historical records and searching cemeteries across the state to find graves helped the crew to identify who was buried at Rockland. Sometimes the researchers even realized that original maps of the cemetery were wrong, finding the real location of graves to be miles away in different cemeteries.

Engle, Platt and Johnson were passionate about the work not only as history buffs, but also because of the importance the site holds to the descendants of those buried there. Many families who started ranching in the area in the late 19th century still have firm roots in the region, Engle said.

Platt feels personal links to the historic church site as well, having known many within the congregation who used to attend services there only a few years before he joined the church himself. The organ player at the church even played during his wedding in 1966.

Platt, as a retired historian, can talk for hours about the people buried in the cemetery over the past century-and-a-half.

“My wife says historians talk too much,” Platt said.

Through their work looking at archives and databases, the church has applied for and received recognition of its original site and cemetery as a historical landmark with Jefferson County, Colorado and the United States.

Katherine Lee Craig, the first woman to serve as state superintendent of schools in Colorado, is buried near the back of the cemetery, her grave marked with a huge boulder. An inscription attests to her work in revolutionizing modern education in Colorado before her death in 1934, saying she was “in the hearts of many pupils.”

Engle came to learn that Craig lied in state for a week at the state Capitol upon her death, and was moved to nominate her to the Jefferson County Historical Commission Hall of Fame in 2020.

Another notable historical figure in the cemetery is Lucian Hunter Ralston, a captain in the Union Army in Kentucky. After the Civil War, Ralston moved with his wife to Lookout Mountain near Golden to try to accommodate her asthma, eventually settling the family on a massive ranch, tying their future descendants to the region.

Ralston, one of Engle’s favorites to talk about, died in 1894 from progressive paralysis due to a war wound and was buried in the Rockland Cemetery, where he was later joined by many more Ralstons in the years to come.

While burials continued in the high weeds even after the church building was left behind, Engle said that since after the cemetery was restored, longtime residents have been more interested in securing plots. He’s even picked out where he wants to be buried, on the left side under one of the few trees in the small cemetery.

Johnson, who has been a member of the church for more than 25 years, said the cemetery means a lot to the congregation at the Rockland Community Church, but also to the broader community. Engle set up memorials at each fence post for anyone to buy for loved ones, whether they were buried in the cemetery or not.

Johnson’s husband, Kent, had his ashes spread at the peak of Mount Evans by Johnson and their daughters, but a fence post along the cemetery’s perimeter is dedicated to him. When Engle asked if he could add a flag under the Korean War veteran’s plaque, Johnson was thrilled.

“It’s very touching,” Johnson said. “It really is.”

Building for the future

Engle’s current project, which he’s been working on for two years, is proving to be one of the most complicated and expensive so far: building a bathroom.

Currently, the historic site is just equipped with an outhouse, complete with two holes deep into the ground behind the church. Bringing in a bathroom requires construction and a new water source, along with a raft of permits from Jefferson County.

With the hope of hosting weddings and other events at the church, Engle knows that a bathroom is a necessity.

“What bride is going to change their dress in an outhouse?” Engle said.

Engle is currently fundraising among the broader Golden area and beyond to get the project done, hoping to reach a total of $135,000.

A restroom also would make the cemetery more accessible to the public as a historic site to learn from.

Engle hopes the church and cemetery can be a place of comfort and learning — and, eventually, with the bathroom addition, a place to celebrate with weddings and events. He believes that attendance at the upcoming Memorial Day event will show how widespread the support is for the historical site.

“They’re not necessarily Rockland people,” Engle said. “They’re people from all over. They’re people from the community.”

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