Friday, September 02, 2011

Peace on earth at Last Chance

Unitarian Universalists sometimes fall back on a one-liner attributable to Thomas Starr King when describing the two faith paths that converged during 1961 when the UU Association pulled formerly separate denominations together.

Universalists believed, so the wry saying goes, that God was too good to condemn them; Unitarians, that they were too good to be condemned by God.

Of the two paths, Universalism was the most gracious --- generously extending salvation to everyone --- and the most popular among common folks (Unitarians tended to be a trifle elitist, decidedly intellectual).

Although Universalism’s aversion to hellfire and damnation didn’t catch on in southern Iowa, I was really happy last week to discover that Universalist thread woven into the fabric of Last Chance.

It’s reflected in an inscription (top) on the flowering tombstone of Mark Jackson Mabry: “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”

It would be difficult to find something not to like about Last Chance. The setting is lovely, at prairie’s edge but embraced on three sides by timber. The cemetery may contain Lucas County’s largest collection of mid-19th century tombstones and certainly does contain several remarkable examples of late 19th century stonework. And there’s the story of its founding, among the most specific of any handed down from earliest days.

All that's missing, sadly, are the giant pines that once shaded it. These reached the end of their natural lives quite a few years ago; only one massive stump remains. I remember the pines, which made the place even more evocative.

Located in Section 7 of Union Township, about 20 miles southwest of Chariton and less than half a mile from the Clarke County line, Last Chance lies alongside the 1846 Mormon Trace. The simplest way to get there from here is to drive west on Highway 34 to Lucas, south on Highway 65 to Goshen church and cemetery, then turn west on gravel. About five miles on, after a mile’s worth of jog south and a turn west again, the cemetery will be some distance to the north, off the road on a short lane.

If you’re a purist, you can follow the Trace all the way to Last Chance by turning south on gravel at the airport road intersection with Highway 34 west of Chariton, then meandering south and west to join the final five-mile stretch at Goshen.


The cemetery at Last Chance precedes the name by several years and the story of its origin was told by Simeon B. Chapman, who arrived in the neighborhood with his family from Monroe County during the spring of 1851, to his son, Robert --- about 5 years old in that year.

According to that story, a party of emigrants --- most often assumed to be Mormons --- had camped for the night at some time during 1851 along the Trace in Section 3 of Union Township, about a mile west of Goshen. One of the men of the party, Lafayette Sherwood, was killed in an accident involving an ox team. He was buried the next day on the knoll a few miles west, where the cemetery developed.

This newer tombstone, probably erected at the traditional gravesite on the Simeon Chapman lot at Last Chance, tells the story. This is not my photo, by the way, but taken instead from the "Find a Grave" Web site.

The story is told occasionally with variations --- Sherwood was killed by a cattle stampede, rather than by an ox team, for example. And although there were several identifiable Lafayette Sherwoods out there in 1850, none of them seem to fit “our” Lafayette. Some attempts have been made, with little success, to link Lafayette Sherwood to the Rev. Jesse Sherwood, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher who lived and died in Indiana Township, Marion County. If Sherwood were indeed a Mormon emigrant, no LDS family ever has claimed him. So next to nothing actually is known about a man whose name is very familiar to many Lucas Countyans.

There is no doubt, however, that thousands of emigrants passed by Last Chance during the late 1840s and early 1850s. As Mormon numbers waned,  they were replaced by parties headed for the gold fields of California and to land open for settlement farther west in Iowa or far away in the Pacific Northwest. For a time, this was the major route across Iowa for travelers.


The village of Last Chance came along later, a modest trading center than also took advantage of traffic passing on the Trace --- then a major route across southern Iowa. A post office was located here from 1865 until 1888, then the community faded. It reportedly included a general store, a blacksmith shop, a brick kiln, a deep well with windmill, eight or 10 houses --- and Last Chance Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), organized in 1856.

The Last Chance congregation’s first building was built in 1867; the second building, in 1894. That distinctive little structure was torn down during 1969 and replaced by a simple rectangular structure that served a diminishing number of people until its doors finally were closed. The final building, converted into a home, still stands on the original Last Chance location southwest of the cemetery.

As to how Last Chance came by its name --- take your pick. Some say the couple who opened the first general store there, having failed twice before to get a business off the ground, declared this to be their “last chance.” Others say that, when residents were searching for a post office name not already taken in Iowa, “last chance” was picked because every other name anyone could think of already had been taken. And still others say a discouraged peddler named William McHenry decided to hold an auction of his goods in the neighborhood, cried out “this is your last chance” during the proceedings and made so much money he decided to stay around, as a farmer, and designated his new neighborhood, you guessed it, “Last Chance.”

The first dramatic stone that catches your eye upon entering Last Chance marks the grave of Mark Jackson Mabry, one of the neighborhood’s most prosperous farmers, who died on July 9, 1887, in his 73rd year. His wife, Meriba, who outlived him by some years, has her own large granite stone just to the north.

Mabry was born Jan. 7, 1815, in Lumpkin County, Georgia, and as a young man roamed through Arkansas and Texas before finally settling down briefly in Fountain County, Indiana, where he married Meriba Carson on Oct. 5, 1845.

Two years later, the Mabrys moved west in a two-horse wagon to Monroe County, Iowa, where they lived until finally settling in the Last Chance neighborhood during 1852. They had two children, Margaret Jane, who married Smith Boggs; and Ellis, who married America E. Skidmore. Although Ellis died in Kansas, America (Skidmore) Mabry and several of her children as well as Margaret and Smith Boggs also are buried at Last Chance.

By the time of his death, Mark had accumulated more than 800 acres of farmland and replaced the family’s original log cabin with a farmstead that was something of a neighborhood showplace, as is his tombstone.

The Mabrys and the Simeon Chapman family, and quite likely other residents of the Last Chance neighborhood, had lived in Fountain County, Indiana, before heading west, so probably were old acquaintances.

The Mabrys and the Chapmans also were Universalists, that gracious expression of Christianity that never managed to catch on in Lucas County.

One thing I especially like on Mark’s tombstone is the epitaph, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” That is line rarely seen in a graveyard and I suspect reflects Mabry's Universalist outlook. The deeply carved floral decoration also is unique.

There is a minor mystery (to me at least) involving Mark. Note the Grand Army of the Republic flag holder at the base of his tombstone. He was not, however, a Union veteran. A roster of Civil War gravesites in Iowa lists Mark as a veteran of Co. B, 13th Regiment, Georgia Cavalry --- a Confederate unit. And a roster of Georgia veterans shows that an M.J. Mabry did enlist in that unit as a private during 1864.

So did Mark, inspired by some variety of idealism, travel when he was approaching 50 back to his boyhood home in Georgia and enlist as a private in the Confederate cause? It appears that way, but nothing on his tombstone or in material I've found about him confirms that. So for the moment at least, the question remains.

I’m always glad to see a Universalist, however, not to mention a guy going through eternity with hope for peace and good will engraved on his tombstone. So I patted old Mark on his marble back last Friday afternoon and walked deeper into the cemetery.

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