Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Cryptography: The Sproatt power tomb

Cemetery geeks sometimes speculate about, among other things, the motivation behind massive statements in stone like this --- the Corydon Cemetery mausoleum that still screams "Sproatt" --- twice --- at passersby after all those years. It would have been interesting to sit in on conversations around the family table during the 1890s to discover who was the prime mover.

It could have been William Sanders Sproatt, the pioneer Corydon druggist whose name it bears, but he seems to have been a man of some modesty. So I'm putting my money on Belle (Bridge) Sproatt --- in part because she marked the 1909 passing of her husband by building a rather grand new home for herself a year later.

Belle also had the prominence of her stepsiblings --- both Miles and LeCompte --- to contend with. But perhaps I'm being unfair.

Whatever the motivation, this grand Richardson Romanesque statement was very much a pre-need arrangement, undertaken when W.S. Sproatt was only 51 and Belle, 39.

I've swiped the following account of its construction (as reported in The Corydon Democrat of Sept. 2, 1897) from the Prairie Trails (Museum) Blogger's post of Feb. 26. Go there and you'll find photographs of the mausoleum's construction.

"Niday & Pinkham on Monday contracted with W.S. Sproatt to build for him a vault on his lots in the Corydon cemetery. The vault will be 15x13x17 high, and built of the celebrated Bedford Armadite stone, trimmed with Quincy granite and Sutherland Falls Marble. The inside will be all marble with tiled floor, alternating black and white, and will contain six catacombs. The vault will stand four steps from the ground and the roof will be supported on the front with solid granite columns with engraved caps. Mr. Pinkham informs us that when completed it will be the finest vault in the state, and hardly second to none. The cost will be about $2,000 which includes a stone walk around the lot."

The Bedford limestone, considered to be the highest quality quarried limestone in the Americas, came from south central Indiana; the marble, from Vermont; and the granite, from Massachusetts. Nothing here was second rate.


W.A. Sproatt, according to his postmortem biography in the 1913 Past and Present of Lucas and Wayne Counties, Iowa, was a native of Indiana who came to Corydon via Leon during the early 1870s and bought the drug store he continued to operate until three years before his death in 1909. He achieved a "fair measure of success," the biography --- no doubt produced by his widow --- somewhat dismissively states.

Sproatt married Belle Bridge in Corydon during March of 1877. She was a daughter of Phebe (Davids) and  William W. Bridge, a Civil War surgeon who died of disease during that conflict in 1864 at Marietta, Georgia, when Belle was about 6.

Belle's stepfather, William Miles, and his first wife, Emily, had arrived in Corydon from Ohio during 1853. He became one of Wayne County's most prominent pioneers, and Miles remained a name to be conjured with in southern Iowa for more than a century. Their daughter, Hannah, married Charles F. LeCompte, and they established another Wayne County family of considerable prominence.

Emily Miles died during 1865, however, and William Miles returned to Ohio to marry the widowed Phebe (Davids) Bridge. It was in that manner that Belle arrived in Corydon.


Phebe Bridge Miles died during 1905, age 79, and so the mother-in-law became the first to be interred in the new Sproatt mausoleum (William and Emily Miles and a number of their children are buried northwest of the mausoleum; he died during 1879). W.S. Sproat died during 1909 in his early 60s and joined her there. Belle had only seven years to enjoy her new house and joined her mother and husband during December of 1917, just short of her 60th birthday. 

The Sproatts had two children, John F., who lived, died and is buried in Iowa City; and Bertha, who married Clarence L. Clark. Clark was a principal in Corydon State Bank, operated an abstract and title business in Corydon, served in the state Legislature from 1939-1945 and was widely known for his horticultural interests. He died during 1958 and joined his in-laws in the mausoleum. Bertha died on her 87th birthday, Jan. 24, 1966, and was the last to be entombed here.

Someone in Corydon, and I can't remember who, told me years ago that when Bertha Sproatt Clark died no one could find the key to the mausoleum, creating some consternation. That story may not be accurate, however.


The mausoleum is built like a bunker and looks like it really will endure for the ages, but it did go through a rough spot some years ago when, I believe, vandals broke a panel of glass in the front door and a plywood slab was inserted behind the grill. That made the place look downright spooky for quite a few years.

Then the door was repaired and now it's possible to look inside --- although condensation made photography through the glass impossible when I was in Corydon Friday.

The residents are secure behind the long engraved marble slabs that front their crypts, three to the south and three to the north (one vacant). The marble floor looks good and what appears to be a marble flower stand topped by a lavish display of artificial blossoms has pride of place in the center of the lobby.

I'm not sure why the lily was gilded with a long stone engraved "Sproatt" mounted at ground level outside to the left of the entrance, but wonder if it might once have served as a namestone in a building elsewhere in Corydon, then was moved here when the building came down.

Whatever the case and whatever the motivation behind its construction, I think that W.S. and Belle Sproatt would be pleased that their grand memorial to themselves continues to march so impressively into eternity.

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