Friday, September 25, 2009

Historic and hallowed places


A typical Chariton Cemetery view, here from the west base of the southeast hill toward the west.


Preservationist and architectural historian Molly Myers Naumann visits with Frank Mitchell prior to last Thursday’s meeting at the Chariton Cemetery shelter house.

Big news by my definition at least is the Chariton Cemetery’s nomination by City Council and Cemetery Board to the National Register of Historic Places. That nomination is likely to be approved after an Oct. 9 hearing in Des Moines.

I like to brag about the cemetery’s beauty and interest and this nomination highlights important contributing factors to that, including a 40-year relationship between the Cemetery Board and Ray F. Wyrick, a Des Moines-based landscape architect and cemetery designer.

All significant features that can be traced to that relationship --- the overall park-like design of the cemetery (most likely launched by the Stanton family when the cemetery was privately owned), the “English cottage” shelter house, the “Baby Heart” for infant burials that was among the first of its sort in the state and the cobblestone entrance gates, built in 1937 by WPA workers to a Wyrick design, survive.

So it was fun last Thursday to attend a public meeting at the cemetery shelter house during which Molly Myers Naumann of Ottumwa, a respected preservationist and architectural historian, reviewed the nomination she had prepared.

All of us present I think learned a lot about how the cemetery developed in the years after 1924 when the city purchased it from Gertrude Stanton, widow of Dr. John H. Stanton, and their daughters and developed it into what it is today.

I suppose I’m as interested, however, in the earliest history of the cemetery and that’s a little murky because records of the 1864-1902 era were destroyed, apparently in a fire, about 1902.

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I can tell you for sure that the Chariton Cemetery began on 25 June 1864, during the Civil War, when 19 investors --- all prominent Chariton men of that time, all now largely forgotten --- formed The Chariton Cemetery Co. and purchased 80 acres of rolling, hilly property with a stream bisecting --- a typical southern Iowa landscape --- just south of town on the highlands above the Chariton River Valley and descending into it. The cemetery property now encompasses about 60 acres.

It had become clear by 1864 that the two cemeteries then serving Chariton would be inadequate. The original cemetery within city limits was located on the current site of Columbus School, a half block north of where I live, but it had rapidly become surrounded by homes and businesses and had no potential for expansion.

The other cemetery, now called the Douglass Pioneer Cemetery, is located just southeast of town off the Blue Grass Road. It had grown up willy-nilly around the graves of the earliest pioneers at Chariton Point, most likely including those left behind by Mormon refugees from Nauvoo who over-wintered near it in 1846-47 --- the first Euro-Americans to actually live for a time at Chariton Point.


The Chariton Cemetery's main entrance gateway was built by WPA workers in 1937 to a design by Ray F. Wyrick.

Once the Chariton Cemetery Co. was organized, its investors set about designing a conventional cemetery for its time that filled roughly the north fifth of the current cemetery landscape. If you enter the cemetery’s main gate just off Highway 14 today, you may drive west on an arrow-straight lane to the west end of the cemetery. That lane divided the original cemetery approximately in half. Take a short loop south and turn east and you’re driving along the south boundary of the original cemetery. The basic lot unit here was 20 feet square.


Looking west from near the entrance along the lane that divides the original Chariton Cemetery roughly in half.

Once the new cemetery was open for business, all the bodies (we hope) were exhumed at the Columbus School site and reburied here. Many bodies also were brought in from Douglass Cemetery, which continued to be used for a time as potter’s field and then was allowed to fall into an awful state of abandonment and disrepair. A potter’s field also was developed on a pretty hilltop in the southwest part of the new property, a suitable distance from paying guests (this since has been incorporated into the cemetery proper although all but a few of its perhaps 250 graves remain unmarked).


Mary Sutphin Howard may have been the first person buried in Chariton's original city cemetery, located where Columbus School now stands.

It’s fun to play the who-was-first? game with the cemetery, but destruction of those early records makes it impossible to be sure. Annie Maria (Scott) Bentley is the source of a story that her mother, Mary (Sutphin) Scott/Howard, who died Oct. 12, 1850, at the age of 47, “was the first burial in Chariton cemetery,” but that most likely refers to burial in the cemetery on the Columbus School site since Mrs. Bentley also noted that her mother’s body had been removed from that location to the new cemetery. Of course this also could be interpreted to mean that Mrs. Scott/Howard’s body was the first to be reburied at the new location. Whatever the case, Mrs. Scott/Howard’s fine tombstone survives in the new cemetery in a remarkable state of preservation.



Weathered tombstones mark the gaves of Margaret Cochran and her son, William, whose remains may have been the first reinterred in the new Chariton Cemetery.

Another alleged “first” is found in a Chariton Herald article of 30 January 1902 reporting upon “interesting cemetery books,” no longer extant, that had just been complied by Dr. James Eddington Stanton, John H. Stanton’s father. According to that article, Dr. Stanton had determined that “the first persons buried there (new Chariton Cemetery) being Margaret T. and William Cochran, twins, who were aged 6 years, 5 months and 18 days at death, and were buried on November 2, 1853.”

Either Dr. Stanton or the Herald reporter had gone rather badly astray here since Margaret T. and William were mother and son rather than twin children. William’s small stone, now leaning against that of his mother, has broken off above date of death and age and its base is not evident, but there is no reason to doubt the death date and age given in the Herald report. This family, consisting of James W. Cochran, 34, Margaret, 31, John, 12, Elizabeth, 8, James G., 7, and William, 3, is found in the 1850 census of Thomson Township, Delaware County, Ohio.

The 1856 census of Chariton enumerates James W. (a farmer), Margaret, John, Elizabeth and James G., all born in Ohio, who had arrived in Iowa three years previously. William is missing, so it is entirely possible he did die in November 1853, age 6, soon after the family’s move west. I have been unable to decipher the entire inscription yet on Margaret’s stone, but she certainly died after 1856 and probably before 1860, by which year the remainder of the Cochran family had vanished from Lucas County.

Again, what the Herald report meant by “first” is impossible to interpret. Perhaps the bodies of William Cochran and his mother were the first reburied in the new cemetery. Who can say?

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As the years passed, ownership of shares in the Chariton Cemetery Co. became concentrated in the hands of Dr. James Eddington Stanton, a native of Belmont County, Ohio, who arrived in Chariton with his family after brief residence in Indiana in 1862. Two of Dr. Stanton’s sons, John H. and Theodore P., followed him into the medical field and also became widely known and respected Chariton physicians.

J.E. Stanton’s obituary (born 15 May 1828, he died in Chariton on 6 November 1908), states that “In later years he retired from active practice and devoted himself largely to beautifying and caring for the city of the dead. He was the principal stockholder in the Chariton Cemetery Association and God’s acre was his special pride.”

Dr. Stanton seems to have been in control of the cemetery by 1887 when he constructed toward the west end of the original cemetery the Stanton mausoleum, with capacity for 30 interments, intended for his own family and the public as well. This has since been demolished and its remaining occupants, including several Stantons, rather unceremoniously reinterred on its site.

Upon J.E. Stanton’s death, controlling interest appears to have passed to his son, Dr. J.H. Stanton, who continued to operate it as a private business until his own death on 25 May 1922.

His obituary (Chariton Herald Patriot, 1 June 1922) states that “He was an active member of the American Association of Cemetery Superitendents and has attended the annual meeting for the past several years in his effort to obtain knowledge and information as to cemetery affairs that would assist him in his untiring efforts in beautifying and improving the Chariton Cemetery to which he devoted a great deal of care and attention and of which he was superintendent.”

The absence of records from the Stanton era make it difficult to determine the role the doctors, father and son, played in the overall design of the cemetery. It is certain that they expanded it considerably along the easterly ridge as far south as the highest point before descent into the river valley begins. Stanton-era extenson along the westerly ridge as far south as the Copeland mausoleum also is evident.

It seems likely to me that the Stantons imposed the curvilinear park-like theme, a prevailing trend in late 19th century cemetery design, picked up and carried forward admirably after 1924 by the Chariton Cemetery Board and its architect, Ray Wyrick.

Upon Dr. J.H. Stanton’s 1922 death, the cemetery passed to his wife, Gertrude, and the Stanton daughters.

Public discontent about Stanton ownership of the cemetery seems to have come to a head just before J.H. Stanton’s death, so it is possible to speculate that stress resulting from it might have been a factor in the unexpected heart attack that killed him on May 25.

The Herald Patriot carred a report in its edition of 18 May 1922 of a City Council meeting held the preceding Monday during which “nearly a score of prominent businessmen” encourage the council to take over ownership and management of the cemetery from the Stantons.

“It was stated that the cemetery is now owned by a closed corporation as a source of profit. That no sinking fund has been set aside for the perpetual care and upkeep of the cemetery and that there is danger than when the remaining lots are sold there will be no source of income to maintain or improve it,” The Herald Patriot reported.

“There is a great deal of feeling in the matter throughout the city and the businessmen stated their belief that it was almost the unanimous wish of the citizens that action be taken at once,” according to the report.

“It was stated at the meeting that deeds given for lots were indefinite as to dimensions, that prices were exorbitant, that deeds were not stamped as provided by law, that no provisions were made for future care, that foundations for monuments were not properly laid, and that the self-respect of the community demanded public ownership.”

There also seem to have been maintenance issues --- overgrowth and poorly-surfaced driveways that made it difficult to enter the cemetery at times.

The council resolved to acquire the cemetery at that meeting, but it required two years of negotiation with Gertrude Stanton to accomplish that. Finally, during May of 1924 according to a 29 May Herald Patriot report, the city agreed to pay the Stanton heirs $10,000 for the cemetery and its undeveloped acreage.

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Whether by luck or design, City Council next appointed a cemetery board of bright and forward-looking men (keep in mind this still was a time when such weighty affairs were considered inappropriate fare for women) --- J.H. Darrah, George Carpenter, L.L. Guernsey, J.H. Curtis and Samuel McKlveen. Widely-respected contractor E.C. Best soon was added.

In short order, the board hired another remarkable and forward-looking male, Orren A. Lamb, as caretaker and overseer, and Wyrick, as landscape arthitect. Although Lamb died nine years later, the relationship with Wyrick continued into the 1960s.

The first order of business was to clear the site of more than 1,000 volunteer trees, up to 400 large trees perhaps planted in the 1860s and much undergrowth (a report in the 1875 “Historical Atlas of Iowa” states that the original cemetery had been enclosed by an Osage orange hedge and that maples, probably a soft variety, had been planted along its driveways). In addition, driveways were graveled (or regraveled): By the late 1920s 11 carloads of gravel and been applied at a cost of $1,100.

Wyrick came up with an overall design for future development that probably expanded upon a Stanton idea --- curving drives that follow the lay of the land and create vistas. He even included a lake, never built, with the stream that flowed southwesterly through the property as its water source.

The stated goal of everyone concerned here was to make the cemetery a place as much for the living as the dead and anyone who visits the cemetery regularly today and sees just how many people use its driveways for walks or jogs or just as paths while browsing among the tombstones can see how well they succeeded.

As the need for more cemetery lots occurred, Wyrick platted areas within the overall design. His only failure was in a small area north of the shelter house than was intended to be a “memoral park” with no tombstones above ground level. Lucas Countyans failed to buy into that idea.

Wyrick also designed the plantings scheme of mixed trees and shrubs that continues to make the cemetery such a pretty place today, although removal and replacement of plantings that have matured and reached the end of their useful lives are major challenges face by the current cemetery board.

Three features that are significant parts of the Historic Places nomination were added during the 1920s and 1930s.



The "English cottage" shelter house from the northeast (top) and from the southeast, showing the Baby Heart placed near it in 1930. The red brick cross in the chimney (farther down) suggests the building also was intended for use as a chapel.

In the late 1920s, the board sought and implemented plans for a brick shelter house designed as an “English cottage” with a commodious front porch enclosed in part by elaborate lattice work and a large airy room that could be used by visitors to the cemetery and by mourners in need of a place to greet friends after a burial. A small restroom was included in the plan. A red brick cross embedded in the exterior of the fireplace chimney suggests it also was intended for use as a chapel.


This building is almost entirely intact, including cast-concrete urns at its approach and a set of wicker furniture donated by Chariton women in 1929. A 1950s addition to the lower level for office and equipment storage space is entirely in keeping with the exterior, including half-timbering in the gable. Only a later metal-clad pole building nearby to house larger equipment is out of place. It’s not clear exactly who designed the shelter house, although current thinking attributes it to E.C. Best, contractor and cemetery board member.

In 1930, the baby heart, thought to have been inspired by an innovation at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, was placed southeast of the shelter house --- three concentric rows of infant graves with identical markers arranged in the shape of a “mother’s heart” with a small monument in the middle. Once the heart was filled, straight rows of infant graves were added to the east.

And finally the cobblestone entrance gateway, added by WPA workers in 1937 to a Wyrick design --- very typical of the 1930s WPA era, designed to embrace and welcome visitors with its broad curves toward massive portal piers, something it continues to do today.

Note: Photos of the north drive and cemetery entrance were taken a couple of years ago (fall is not quite this advanced in southern Iowa at the moment). A good deal of the information about the cemetery after 1924 is taken from Molly Myers Naumann’s National Register of Historic Places nomination document.

1 comment:

Angela said...

Thank you for these amazing articles Mr. Myers! My mother's parents' families are both from Chariton--the Della Bettas, and the Simmons--and I feel a real connection to them when I read your postings. My entire family especially appreciates the inclusion of the posting on my great uncle Dutch Della Betta within the "Lessons in their Dying" section. Thank you for your interest and attention to detail! Keep the postings coming! :) Sincerely, Angela Jensen