In 2011, right before the one-year anniversary of the passing of Brian Barnes (a former Steward resident and son of former mayor Emmett Barnes and wife Pauline Jones Barnes Cultra), his sister Nora, on behalf of the family (including sisters Pamela and Nola), wrote to the Village of Steward asking if there was something they could do in the Village to commemorate and honor their brother’s life. Brian lived in Steward as a boy, teen, and just into adulthood, eventually making his home in the Chicago area, though his memories of his great times and “idyllic childhood” in Steward remained with him throughout his life. Nora wrote to the Village asking if the family could do something in the park, i.e. plant a tree, purchase a park bench, OR, since her career expertise included marketing/advertising, she wondered about helping them fundraise for a type of memorial brick walkway that she had been seeing pop up around the Rockford and Chicago areas. The Village wrote back stating that the Board had been discussing what to do with the vacant lot directly next to the Village Hall on Main Street, something that the entire community (and visitors) could enjoy for years to come, and wondered if she could help them do something there. And that’s how it began.

Pauline’s cousin, Karen Bonnell, a Steward resident, also volunteered to assist with the project. She spread the word and a committee of volunteers met in the Steward Park to discuss plans on how to bring this project to life. After that meeting, Nora and Pauline walked up the steps of the post office building to look across the street at that vacant lot and envision what it should look like, based on what the committee had mentioned wanting, and what they were envisioning. Nora then asked her sister, Nola (who is an artist) to come and do the same thing, and while standing on those steps, Nora explained now the complete vision in detail, and Nola went home and began drawing the first mockup of what the garden could look like. The drawing was perfect as described. That drawing was used in fundraising flyers and other promotional items that Nora designed, and is currently in the Village Hall, ironically by a drawing that Nora & Nola’s father made (when he was mayor many years before) of what he envisioned the Village park could look like after organizing fundraising for playground equipment.

A fundraising campaign began in the spring of 2012 to transform the lot into a “Celebration Garden” with park benches, flower gardens, trees, and a brick walkway comprised of personalized bricks honoring loved ones. Flyers, posters, a Facebook page, and letters were all created to help in this endeavor.

Many residents who grew up in Steward and who moved away as adults also have fond memories of their idyllic childhood in this quaint, Main Street U.S.A. town, and ordered bricks to memorialize their loved ones who have also lived in the area. Patrons ordered bricks to honor or celebrate an event or group. One past resident that now lives out East and whose last remaining Steward family resident passed away, generously donated a park bench and a tree honoring the family.  Another family also donated a second park bench to honor their grandparents who grew up on a farm outside of Steward.  The fundraising campaign was a success as the entire community came together, initially ordering more than 60 bricks, and donating their time, labor, talents, and money towards this project.

The brick walkway was laid in the summer of 2012, and a large dedication ceremony was held on Saturday, August 4, 2012, which included a viewing of the memorial brick walkway, tours of the historic Village Hall, musical entertainment, and free refreshments. It was decided that an open house of the garden and historic village hall would be held each year in August during Stewardfest.

Each year, more and more current and former residents donate bricks, and generous patrons donate money for the garden’s upkeep and maintenance, plus for more flowers. In 2018, a brat dinner was held in the garden as an additional fundraiser, bringing together this community of people celebrating and honoring their loved ones.

The founding members of this Celebration Garden Committee included Karen Bonnell, Pauline Barnes Cultra, Greg and Linda Danekas, Tom Ellis, Ted and Judy Witasik, and Nora Barnes Jeter, Chair. As of 2019, the committee includes Pauline Barnes Cultra, Nora Barnes Jeter, Karen Bonnell, Mildred Danekas, and Zachery Burkhart, with much assistance by current Village President Hugh McKiski, and also by board member Tom Brown.

Our heartfelt thanks go out to each and every person who has ordered bricks, donated towards flowers, benches, trees, etc., and for all who have donated their time in helping with the maintenance and care of this Celebration Garden. A special thank you to the following founding donors; The Ravnaas Family (concrete pad), Anne Hemenway Parker (bench and tree), and the Skinner Family (bench) for their initial generous donations that helped with the creation of this walkway, and to initial contributors Jack Thompson with Alto Township, Nola Barnes Addante (artist rendering), and Champion Printing (printing of fundraising brochures). A list of donors to date is coming soon. Thank you to all who have, and continue to, support this endeavor.