Myrteen Cronk Heslep’s start in the family business required that she work the graveyard shift — literally.
As a teenager, Heslep’s job was to cut grass around the tombstones of Fair View Cemetery by hand. Even at a low wage, Heslep made pretty good money considering that the cemetery, which was owned by her father, Russell Cronk, spread across 57 acres and contained thousands of graves.
“I made 25 cents a marker,” Heslep recalled. “I had to get down on my hands and knees with a pair of hand clippers.”
Those markers bore the names of some of Roanoke’s founders — mayors, congressmen and even that of Charles Thomas, whose midnight horse ride in 1881, the legend goes, played a huge role in Roanoke’s creation story. Thomas rode toward Buchanan along the muddy turnpike as part of a relay to deliver a $10,000 guaranteed note from local businessmen to railroad moguls meeting in Lexington, who were persuaded to build the line that created the “Magic City” boomtown of Roanoke the next year. The dead not only are buried at Fair View, but history also lives here.
Heslep’s brother, Dennis Cronk, was no slouch himself, digging graves with a backhoe, mowing grass, helping with funerals and other jobs at Fair View, a 133-year-old cemetery in Northwest Roanoke that the family has overseen since 1965. The Cronks’ family home on 31st Street was virtually part of Fair View, encircled by a stone wall that matched the cemetery’s rock façade and with a backyard that included an entrance into the burial park.
“I practically grew up in the cemetery,” Dennis Cronk said.
Sometimes, though, even a cemetery must transition to the next realm, and that is the reality the Cronk and Heslep family now faces. With no heirs interested in running Fair View or Cedar Lawn Memorial Park, the family’s other cemetery, and their effort to find other buyers unsuccessful, the board of directors plans to dissolve the nonprofit foundation that has operated the cemeteries for nearly 40 years and give the properties to the city of Roanoke, which it hopes will take over operations later this year.
“We’re not selling it,” Cronk said. “We’re giving it away. We tried to identify another corporation that would take over, but we could not make it happen. We wanted to find someone who would be personally responsible to see that the cemetery goes forward. The best option is for the city to assume that responsibility.”
The problem is that so far the city does not seem interested in accepting the gift of two cemeteries.
The decision to accept or reject the proposal to operate the cemeteries, one of which dates back to Roanoke’s first decade of existence, could eventually land in the lap of the city council. However, Roanoke’s mayor and city attorney both said last week that the city prefers that a private owner, not the city government, take over the cemeteries.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but I believe that the consensus of city council is that this is not something the city should undertake,” Mayor Sherman Lea said.
City attorney Tim Spencer said that Roanoke officials have been working with the cemetery’s board for more than a year to find private owners to take over. He, like Lea, said that the city should not assume ownership of Fair View and Cedar Lawn.
Spencer said that even though the decision is up to the council, in his opinion, “the city is not in the cemetery business.”
* * *
The final resting place of magnates and paupers, veterans and infants
Saying the cemetery has a pretty fair view is an understatement.
Fair View sits atop a hill that rises between Melrose Avenue to the north and Salem Turnpike to the south. Standing at the top of the hill near the main office affords a panoramic view of practically every major mountain peak that encircles the Roanoke Valley — from Tinker, Read and Fort Lewis to Bent Mountain and Poor Mountain. Mill Mountain and the Roanoke Star, which didn’t shine in fluorescent glory until the cemetery was nearly 60 years old, are also visible from Fair View. Other neighboring landmarks subsequently took the same name, including Fairview United Methodist Church and Fairview Elementary School.
The spot, now flanked by convenience stores, a Burger King, storage buildings, a Virginia ABC store and other urban businesses, would have been considered way out in the country when it was founded in 1890, just eight years after Roanoke’s steam-powered birth.
Before the Shenandoah Valley and Norfolk & Western lines turned Roanoke into a boomtown crossroads, the previous hamlet of Big Lick operated its own cemetery, a small plot now called the City Cemetery which sits adjacent to the Roanoke Rescue Mission today near downtown. (The city still owns that cemetery.) With the population explosion of the 1880s — Roanoke grew from fewer than 1,000 to more than 16,000 in eight years, a 2,000-percent increase that spawned the Magic City name — city fathers knew that the City Cemetery was not a sufficient burial ground.
According to a Fair View history on the company’s website, a few Roanoke families pooled money to buy property west of the city in the winter of 1890. Some bodies were moved from the City Cemetery to the new property, which offered a quiet resting place some 4 miles west of the cacophony and tumult of city’s railroad shops, railyards and boisterous, muddy, smelly downtown.
Henry Trout, one of Roanoke’s founders and early mayors, is buried in Fair View. Congressman Clifton Woodrum, a significant politician whose name adorned the airport of Woodrum Field and who rode in an open-top limousine with President Franklin Roosevelt to the opening of the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1934, lies here next to his wife, Martha, beneath an impressive 6-foot-tall white bell tower.
Ten mayors of Roanoke and two from Big Lick are buried here, including Roy Webber, the florist who became Roanoke mayor and for whom the Roy Webber Expressway was named following his death from a heart attack in 1975. Among the 26,000 graves are buried veterans from nearly every war since the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (those bodies were reinterred from other cemeteries; the cemetery also features a plaza dedicated to military veterans and offers free burial space for veterans), state legislators and judges, as well as railroad workers who perished on the job and dozens of babies who died during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Some inscriptions bear gruesome details, such as the description of James D. Jackson’s death in 1893.
The weathered lettering is difficult to read, but basically states that Jackson was “[K]illed on the SVRR,” which stood for Shenandoah Valley Railroad. It goes on to say that Jackson “[I]n the crash and the fall … stood unmoved and sacrificed his life so that he might fulfill his trust,” or words to that effect.
The tombstone for Thomas and Laura Goodman is notable for the intricately carved granite Norfolk & Western engine and rail car that sits atop the marker. Flowers, lambs and other bas-relief images adorn the tombstones.
In a northwest plot of the cemetery, rows of small gravesites are topped with flat markers engraved with no names or words, only with numbers or dates that reveal the 1918-19 pandemic’s tragic toll, especially on the young.
That section of the cemetery also includes names that appear to be Eastern European or Asian, including some embossed with Asian characters, owing to Roanoke’s legacy as a city of immigrants since its earliest railroad days. Jewish and Black people are buried here, many entombed from an era when Roanoke and the rest of the Jim Crow South were cleaved by segregation.
Heslep, now the president of the board of the nonprofit F.V. Cemetery Co. Inc., said that her father often helped poor families bury their dead, sometimes for free.
“He gave away space for the burials of some babies,” she said. Russell Cronk tried to accommodate indigent people, especially if they already had family buried at Fair View.
For decades, Fair View operated under its original charter as a privately owned cemetery, through several different presidents, including members of the Griggs family, whose ancestors included a mayor of Big Lick and who helmed the company for nearly 50 years, according to the cemetery’s records. In 1909, the cemetery became the first in Virginia to establish a perpetual care fund to cover future operating expenses, a fund that now exceeds $3 million.
Russell Cronk, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, went to work for the Griggs family after the war and eventually became a manager before rising to president of Fair View in 1965. That same year, the Fair View Cemetery Company took over Cedar Lawn, a privately owned burial park near the intersection of Peters Creek and Cove roads, a move that brought additional income to sustain the company. In 1983, the Fair View company converted to nonprofit and established the Fair View Foundation, which allowed the cemetery board to accept charitable donations and to run fundraising campaigns.
Today, though, no next generation of family members or outsiders is interested in taking over the cemetery, Dennis Cronk said. That led the board to explore options that include turning the cemeteries over to the city.
Heslep said that the board wants to make sure the cemetery, which hosts about 200 burials a year, remains viable for future generations and that nine full-time employees are kept on the job. Cronk said the cemetery is financially sound and still has space to accommodate burials for several decades. About 14 acres of Fair View and 5 in Cedar Lawn are unused.
“This is one of the best-run cemeteries in the Roanoke Valley,” Heslep said. “It’s in very good condition with competent employees. All the computer systems and bookkeeping are up to date. Everything is there for a sound transition.”
* * *
A deadline looms, with no buyer in sight
Fair View’s leaders contacted Roanoke officials more than a year and a half ago to broach the possibility of turning over the cemeteries to the city. Cronk and others met with City Manager Bob Cowell and showed a slide presentation of their plan on June 24, 2021.
Bill Hopkins, the board’s attorney, provided to Roanoke officials a list of 60 cemeteries in Virginia that are owned by municipalities, a list he said is not comprehensive. He also cited Virginia law that allows for land to be transferred to municipalities for use as cemeteries.
“We’ve told them that this was coming multiple times,” Hopkins said of his communication with Roanoke leaders.
Cronk, who has more than 40 years as a real estate developer and is chairman and CEO of the Roanoke-based Poe & Cronk Real Estate Group, said that he tried to find private buyers for the cemeteries, and he even enlisted the help of a broker that specializes in cemetery property.
“I’ve tried for 15 years to find somebody” to buy the cemeteries, Cronk said. “I hired a cemetery broker from Las Vegas, I’ve talked to corporations. I’ve had no luck.”
Cronk said that he understands that some might not think that operating a cemetery is a core public service that city government should undertake. But he said that Fair View’s history and the fact that the board will give approximately $3 million in perpetual care funds to the city should make the transition more palatable to city leaders.
“We don’t believe this will be a drain on city resources,” Cronk said.
It’s not clear that the city has been persuaded by the offer, however. Cowell was out of town last week and could not comment about Fair View and Cedar Lawn. Earlier this month, Hopkins delivered a letter to Lea and other city council members that urged council to schedule a public hearing regarding a potential transfer of the cemeteries. So far, no hearing has been scheduled.
The agenda for city council’s Tuesday meeting does include a request for a closed meeting to discuss “the possible acquisition of real estate in the Northern area of the City of Roanoke, where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body,” which could possibly be in regards to the Fair View and Cedar Lawn offers.
Lea said that the offer might be discussed at a future council meeting, but maintained that “a consistent majority [of council] are opposed to getting involved with that.”
Spencer said that no one with the city has shown “any intention to take over ownership” of the cemeteries. He likened the situation to that of any other privately owned company that goes out of business.
“A lot of businesses dissolve,” he said. “And the city does not take them over.”
Spencer said he was surprised that the Fair View board hired a public relations firm to send news releases that announced its intention to give the cemeteries to the city. He called that move a “head-scratcher” that seemed to be designed to encourage public support for the group’s offer to have the city take over the cemeteries.
“They hired a PR firm to pressure the city,” Spencer said. “That was a bit disturbing. But I think we can still work together and find somebody in the private sector.”
Spencer said that he had conversations with three potential operators for the cemeteries.
Jennifer Eddy, president of the Roanoke-based Eddy Alexander agency that has handled the board’s public strategy, said that her firm was not hired to pressure the city, but to help communicate Fair View’s plans to families with loved ones buried in the cemeteries and to the general public.
“We needed to tell family and employees about what was happening,” Eddy said. “We mailed letters to families, and sent postcards to neighbors. We wanted to tell community leaders that we are running out of options for succession.”
The nonprofit foundation that operates the cemeteries will dissolve June 30. If there is no successor — whether city government or a private business — a receiver might be appointed to take over the cemeteries and look for a buyer.
“We don’t think that will be successful,” Hopkins said.
Board member Charles Hunter, who has four generations of family members buried at Fair View, said that Cronk and Heslep have worked diligently to find a suitable successor to their family leadership.
“They have a passion for the cemeteries,” Hunter said. “They haven’t done a thing for themselves, but have done everything to make sure these cemeteries are around for the future.”
Regardless of whom the next owner of the cemeteries will be, Cronk said decisions need to be made soon.
“We need time to bring folks up to speed to make this transition work,” Cronk said. “Our job is to see that the future is secured. The best option is for the city to take over.”