Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Cemetery preservationists gather in Corydon

Steve Story presides over Saturday's meeting in the Prairie Trails west gallery.

My friend, Bill, gardening guru at Prairie Trails Museum in Corydon, decided to check out his tulips Saturday morning --- couldn't find a parking place, just kept driving. Which gives some idea of how well-attended the quarterly meeting of the State Association for the Preservation of Iowa Cemeteries (SAPIC) was. The meeting was hosted by the Wayne County Pioneer Cemetery Commission at the museum. 

President Steve (and Donna) Story, of Hawkeye, way up in northeast Iowa's Fayette County, had arisen at 4 a.m. in order to make the trip down. Other members were present from Waterloo, Webster City and elsewhere in Iowa --- even Illinois. The Illinois guy had overnighted in Corydon and had nothing but praise for the general friendliness of the community --- and the Nodyroc (Corydon spelled backwards) Motel.


SAPIC was founded in 1996, after the Iowa Legislature established the Pioneer Cemetery Commission plan in an attempt to resolve issues involving abandoned and/or deteriorating pioneer cemeteries statewide. In Iowa, rural cemeteries deeded to the public are the responsibility of township trustees who are required (by law) to levy modest taxes and ensure their upkeep. Many trustees do a good job, others do as little as possible unless yelled at or threatened with legal action.

Under the 1996 plan, county supervisors were authorized to take control of pioneer cemeteries (currently defined as graveyards where 12 or fewer burials have occurred during the last 50 years) and pass responsibility for them on to Pioneer Cemetery Commissions. Financing for commission activities comes from county general funds, rather than township levies; and commissions generally are strongly preservation minded, anxious to restore as well as to maintain.

Lucas County's Pioneer Cemetery Commission, with a magnificent record, was one of the earliest; Wayne County's commission was established during 2010.

SAPIC serves as an umbrella group for Iowa's 28 county commissions (out of 99 potential), but also has a variety of other related missions and projects; individuals may join for $10 annually. The SAPIC Web site is located here.


One SAPIC mission is to serve as an advocate among county supervisors for the cemetery commission strategy, and there was discussion of that Saturday morning. The state map that shows existing commissions tilts strongly east and south, so there's considerable work to do elsewhere in the state.

Another task is to inform township trustees and county supervisors of their responsibilities in regard to cemetery care and maintenance. There was talk of trying to find a place on the agenda of the next annual meeting of the state association of county supervisors.

And another is to foster the use of appropriate techniques and products by those actively involved in cemetery restoration. SAPIC approved Saturday a donation to help fund a May 17 class and workshop in Independence. More about that event can be found on the SAPIC Web site.


Donna Story reported on a project launched by Gov. Terry Branstad, with input from state Sen. Dennis Black of Newton, last August. Branstad asked SAPIC volunteers to locate and carefully photograph the grave sites and tombstones of all Iowa governors, lieutenant governors and federal cabinet appointees. Reports and photographs compiled by the volunteers will be forwarded to Branstad's office, analyzed and, hopefully, steps then taken to conserve and/or repair stones in need of work.

Donna Story reports on progress of the governor's project.

A volunteer from the Monroe County Pioneer Cemetery Commission stepped to the plate Saturday and volunteered to photograph and report on the status of the gravesite of Lucas County's only native-born governor, Nathan Kendall (Leo Hoegh was an import). Kendall is buried under a bench in the front yard of his home, Kendall Place, in Aliba --- in cremated form.


I enjoyed hearing Mike McGee, of Waterloo, tell the story of Mary Viden's grave --- an instance where pioneer burials and progress collided. The property in question, at 3700 University in Waterloo, had been the site of a founding family's home, but had become commercial --- the site selected for a new Hy-Vee gas station. Reportedly buried there, ca. 1848, was a child named Mary Viden, who died after her clothing accidentally caught fire.

 After assembling sufficient evidence to support the possibility of burials on the site, a report was made to the office of the state archaeologist.

That office directed Hy-Vee to hire archaeological consultants to investigate and they did indeed locate two grave markers and the physical remains of one child. None could be tied to Mary Viden, however. The stones and the remains were removed and buried elsewhere. But McGee and others wanted some sort of marker at the site to indicate that burials had been made there and that, perhaps, Mary's remains still might be nearby. Hy-Vee has been less than enthusiastic, however, and the issue has not been resolved.


After the meeting was adjourned for lunch, most of us retired in shifts to the museum theater to view a presentation on the Wayne County Pioneer Cemetery Commission's work since its organization.

The commission's first project was the Duncan Cemetery, perhaps Wayne County's oldest, down in Grand River Township just northeast of Lineville. The oldest grave here is that of Polly Duncan, who died in February of 1846. The markers in the cemetery were shattered and scattered and the area brushy when volunteers began work, but now it has been fully restored. 

A bonus of that project came during August, 2011, when volunteers returned after an absence to find the cemetery shimmering with purple-top prairie grass, probably native to the area when pioneers arrived. Seed was saved from the stand for use in reseeding projects in other pioneer cemeteries.

The commission's next project was Big Springs Cemetery in Jefferson Township, northwest of Clio and about two miles west of Highway 65. That cemetery, very badly overgrown, has turned into a multi-year project. And just last fall, commission volunteers were able to find the Ryan Cemetery site in Union Township northwest of Millerton.


Other Wayne County cemetery success stories are related less directly to the commission as a whole.

In Wright Township, trustees reclaimed Adcock Cemetery from brush on their own after consulting with the commission.

At Promise City, a plan by cemetery officials to bury an 1899 six-holer mausoleum embedded in a hillside in order to alleviate safety concerns was detected, consciousness-raising sessions held and a cooperative venture launched to save it (by this time, iron gates already had been removed and buried). A grant was acquired and after a lot of work by volunteers, the mausoleum has been restored, retaining walls rebuilt and a safety rail installed. Commissioners Brenda DeVore and Dale Clark, and others, were heavily invested in this project.

Before the commission was established, Dale and Daniel Clark already had spearheaded the effort to restore (so far as possible) Dodrill Cemetery, along the South Chariton north of Promise City. This once-extensive cemetery had been cleared of stones, reportedly by a farmer, perhaps in the 1940s, and then farmed over. Although graves have been lost, the site has been reclaimed and a marker and flag pole erected.

No comments: