One of Mike Donelson’s greatest works of memorial stone art majestically stands hidden in a clearing of lonely pines in the Rio Grande National Forest. At 11,000 feet along Colorado’s Continental Divide, Soldierstone is an 8-ton tower of polished granite honoring the lives of foreign fighters who died during the Vietnam War. The occasional visitor to this remote high-country field can’t miss Mike’s hand-carved craftsmanship. The monument’s inscription includes VALOR, HONOR, and COURAGE, with the country names, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Mike, owner of Ark-Valley Memorial in Rocky Ford, Colorado, was secretly commissioned by retired Lt. Col Stuart Allen Beckley in the late 1980s to design and craft Soldierstone. The tribute is from American soldiers to their forgotten compatriots who died battling communism in Indochina between 1945 and 1975.
“Soldierstone was a long project and it turned out really well,” Mike says of the memorial that was eventually discovered and featured on “CBS This Morning.” “From the time I first met the colonel until we finished it, it was about seven years. The cat’s out of the bag now.”
The desolate setting, logistics, and hush-hush nature of the Soldierstone project is quite different from the thousands of veterans memorials and memorial markers that Mike and his son, Paul, have crafted from their shop on Elm Avenue.
Creating Individualized Monuments
Mike’s great-grandfather started Rocky Ford’s Donelson family funeral home business in 1913. As a young man, Mike, planned to get his mortuary science degree and carry on as a fourth-generation funeral director. But moving back to Ark Valley with wife, Suzanne, in 1976 after time working on a Montana ranch, Mike landed a part-time job working with the local monument business. In June 1977, Mike took over as the owner of Ark-Valley Memorial. Over the past four decades, has built one of the most successful monument businesses in the region.
Although the primary service area is southeastern and southern Colorado, Mike and his team consistently work up to 250 miles into northern New Mexico and western Kansas. If asked, they can design and set a monument anywhere in the continental U.S.
All of Ark-Valley’s craftsmanship pieces are unique whether in the cemetery or a public venue. Every cemetery monument, tombstone, headstone, gravestone, cremations urn, or vase they create is a unique memorial to honor the departed. You see this from rural Arkansas Valley gravesites to Pueblo’s black granite Korean War Memorial etched with an image of servicemen and a large-scale map of Korea.
“Instead of making cookie-cutter monuments,” Mike explains, “we’ve always prided ourselves in making every monument individualized and special for each family and customer, and they appreciate that.”
Offering Endless Art and Inscriptions
Whether someone wants to commission an extensive custom sculpture design or simply wants to add a final date on a marker already on-site, the Donelsons treat every customer with honesty and sensitive respect. A combined 70 years of knowledge and expertise of memorial art between Mike and Paul adds to their stellar reputation with grieving families and others who want to honor deceased loved ones.
The father-son team “throw ideas back and forth” when they work on a customer’s vision for the set-in-stone artwork. When Mike first started out in his memorial art career, he’d sketch designs by hand for customers. Today computer-generated designs show customers a wide variety of art and inscription options.
“At times it can be taxing and challenging, but we really do love what we do. I most enjoy the art end of it and being with people,” Mike says. “It’s been a blessing to have really good customers over the years. They’ve been so appreciative of what we do.”
This solid working-together partnership with customers is paramount to Mike and Paul because many bereaved customers are vulnerable in their decision-making. Ark-Valley is extra careful not to take advantage to sell people more than they truly need or can afford.
“It’s a big thing to us to work with people’s budget whether that’s a couple hundred dollars or a couple thousand of dollars,” Mike adds. “This isn’t something you should go bankrupt over.”
Appreciating Honesty and Integrity
In discussing what people would like on memorial stones, Mike is known for his good-natured demeanor. He can definitely think outside the granite and marble, but some designs ideas may be too unrealistic. “My famous saying is, ‘That would be nice to do that,’ Mikes explains, ‘and I’d like to be taller too, but neither is possible.’”
Customers appreciate Mike’s honesty and integrity and are quick to recommend Ark-Valley to others. It’s the same commitment to honesty and integrity that Mike sees in his banking relationship with First National Bank of Rocky Ford.
“First National has been really easy to work with and the staff is always ready to help you as soon as you walk in the door,” Mike shares. “They will set aside time to talk with you and see if you have any specific needs.”
Mike particularly appreciates the convenience and quick turnaround on his banking transactions. “It’s been a really good working relationship with the bank. Everybody at First National Bank puts their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else,” says Mike, a Rocky Ford business owner for more than 43 years. “I’ve appreciated all the courtesies that the bank has afforded us over the years. They are good people.”
Trusting Ark-Valley for Custom Designs in Rocky Ford and Beyond
Mike regards his customers as good people too. “We do a lot of custom work and we are fortunate that they trust us enough to memorialize their people,” he explains.
Mike refers to March through May as “haying season,” when Ark-Valley Memorial makes their most income every year. Springtime orders increase for memorials as people visit cemeteries for Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and Father’s Day and want gravestones in place and new inscriptions completed.
Mike would rather be in the shop making memorial stones, but these days he invests more time in the office alongside Suzanne who works part-time. Mike handles orders and oversees Ark-Valley’s dozen different retail outlets in the area—cemeteries, funeral homes, or individual monument sales people.
As Paul continues to learn the ropes of all aspects of the business, Mike is eyeing an eventual retirement. Or, as he says, “I’m going to bug out of here and go fishing.” And with a quick smile he adds, “Or, they may put me in a box and take me to the cemetery before I get it done.”
So what will the master artist’s own memorial be someday? For now, Mike says he hasn’t had time to think about his own memorial design. But maybe a few years down the road when he’s out fishing, he’ll start a few original sketches in his head.
That is when the fish aren’t biting.
First National Bank of Rocky Ford is a local, community bank and part of a family of seven banks serving Colorado since its founding in Las Animas in 1901.