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North Iowa Times
Maintaining Hallowed Ground

Ron Harris

As spring approaches, cemetery sextons are getting equipment ready for another season of mowing, trimming, straightening tombstones, planning for holiday commemorations, and assisting families and historians find long lost gravesites.

In Iowa, the month of May has been designated Cemetery Appreciation Month to recognize the important repository of historical data cemeteries provide, as well as for their memorial value to loved ones.

Besides the larger burial grounds, smaller, often neglected sites are scattered throughout the state. Realizing that these old records of the earliest settlers were in danger of being destroyed by the elements and human activity, Iowa legislators drafted a law that authorizes counties to set up Pioneer Cemetery Commissions, to be operated by volunteers, to supervise the restoration of neglected or abandoned cemeteries.

At the state level, The State Association for the Preservation of Iowa Cemeteries is Iowa's volunteer pioneer cemetery group. (21813 170th St., Birmingham, I A 52535 http://www.rootsweb.com/~iasapc/ ) This organization provides information and support for local restoration efforts and works with the state to draft new laws and provide government oversight of burial sites. The state Association has issued a draft report form to be used to report cemeteries that are in need of restoration. Last year a new law was passed that permits access to cemeteries by researchers or restorers, whether or not the location is on private land

Locally, Clayton County is one of 24 counties (Iowa has 99 counties) to establish such a Pioneer Board. A few sites in the County have been destroyed by roads or farming practices, but most are still identifiable

The Clayton County Pioneer Cemetery Commission was established in 1999 by action of the County Board of Supervisors. The first meeting was held January 11 of 2000 with appointees Lawrence Fox, Donald Sass, Tom Amling, Herbert Kann, and Myra Voss attending.

The current Commission is made up of Lawrence Fox, President (St. Olaf); Myra Voss, Secretary (Elkader); Donald Sass, (Luana); Gene Ruegnitz, (Garber); LeRoy Bolsinger, Colesburg. Former members include Herb Kann, Tom Amling, and Ken Werges.

Ten years before the Pioneer Commission was established, a dedicated group of volunteers had already been going about locating and restoring old graveyards, of which there are abundance in Clayton County. The establishment of a Pioneer Commission provides a small budget and legal sanction for the volunteers' work. Members of the Commission receive no compensation for their work. Some supplies are provided by donations and the yearly budget provided by the County.

The Commission has identified 99 Pioneer cemeteries in Clayton County out of a total of 169 cemeteries. There are 70 active cemetery associations. State law provides that "A county board of supervisors may levy a tax of six and three fourths cents per thousand dollars of assessed value of taxable property to repair and maintain all cemeteries under its jurisdiction, including pioneer cemeteries." (Iowa Code § 331.424B) In practice, townships actually collect the money and maintain the cemeteries. In Clayton County, all townships except Mendon provide funds for cemeteries not maintained by associations, families, churches or other entities. After the recent restoration of the Eastman Cemetery in Mendon Township, the trustees were asked to establish an assessment to provide funds for maintenance of the Eastman site, but declined to take action.

Clayton County Pioneer Cemetery Commission Secretary Myra Voss stated that each year the Pioneer Commission works on at least five cemeteries, and each year puts up at least two signs to designate a cemetery's name. The Commission has conducted extensive research on County cemeteries and maintains an archive of records and photographs.

Accurate burial records are often difficult to locate. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) set up by President Roosevelt in the 1930s sponsored a Cemetery Recording Project that gave unemployed people the job of traveling about, recording the names and locations of cemeteries and taking down a list of those buried therein.

Records provided by Ms. Voss and Michele Pettit of the McGregor Library listed the Point Ann Cemetery, Walton Cemetery, Chapin Cemetery, and James McGregor burials as the small, very old sites within the city limits.

There is no disagreement about the James McGregor burial—it is marked by the large obelisk next to the McGregor School building. The status of some other sites is not so straightforward.

One set of records shows J. G. (sometime written as J. C.) Walton buried in the Walton Cemetery, another that he is buried in the Chapin Cemetery. The Walton Cemetery listing also includes Martin Overley, son of Martin Jr. and Emily Overley, who died in 1855 at three years of age; J. G. Walton was husband of Nancy Walton, and his death is listed as being March 24, 1854.

Tombstones for Overley and Walton were found on what may be the Walton Cemetery site located near 1202 Buell Avenue. An additional piece of tombstone was found bearing the first name, "Alolphis." It is not known whether this may have been an Overley or Walton or someone else. This site is believed to be now on state property, part of Pikes Peak State Park. According to Gregory Jones of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in Des Moines, a survey is scheduled for this summer to establish definite property boundaries.

It is probable the listing for Walton being buried in the Chapin Cemetery was because the land was previously owned by McGregor Attorney, Asahel Chapin (1846-1922), and was not the "official" name. There is no evidence (except the note on the Clayton County Cemetery website) of an actual "Chapin" Cemetery—Asahel Chapin is buried in Pleasant Grove Cemetery.

Ms. Voss provided this from Commission records, dated 1968: "As you are leaving McGregor, Iowa, going west. In back of Slaughter's Trading Post to the left in the wooded area near the new home that is being built is a cemetery. There are approximately 12 people buried there, we were only able to find 2, Mr. Lynn Johnson, president of McGregor Historical Society will again check this fall when the leaves are gone." [The two found were Overley and Walton.]

The Monona Historical Society has records that show Martin Overley (father of the boy, Martin Overley, buried in the Walton Cemetery in McGregor) died in 1872 and is buried in Monona. He was married seven times.

Several local sources believe the "Point Ann Cemetery" is the present Catholic Cemetery that is located on the hill north of the school in McGregor, even though that location is not a part of Point Ann, which is east of town along the River. Records of the Pioneer Commission say the Point Ann Cemetery is a "lost" site. Some older McGregor residents report that the present parking area near Point Ann was a burial site for horses in the days of the horse and buggy.

One McGregor cemetery that did exist, but moved, is that of the City's founder, Alexander MacGregor. After he died in 1858, according to his wishes, he was buried in a plot that is now located on the McGregor Heights, on the bluff above where his house was located. When Alexander's brother James died in 1867, and was going to be buried in the same plot, Alexander's wife had Alexander and his young son, who was also buried there, exhumed and moved to Evergreen Cemetery in Prairie du Chien. She did not have a high regard for James! James ended up being buried in the Buell Park site next to the present school in McGregor, the obelisk marking his grave provided by James McGregor's nephew, James Buell. There are no other burials at this site.

As usual, research into local history often brings up more questions than answers. Who else is buried in the Walton Cemetery? When was it established and by whom? Who was. G. Walton? Is Walton Avenue named after J. G. Walton? Is there a Chapin Cemetery? Is there a lost Point Ann Cemetery? Why was James McGregor buried alone in the Buell Park site? Answers to these questions, if found, will be reported in a future article.

Those wishing more information on county burial sites or wish to volunteer in researching and restoring county cemeteries may contact the Clayton County Pioneer Cemetery Commission in Elkader. Lawrence Fox, president—563-245-1926; Myra Voss, secretary—563-245-1065.

McGregor librarian Michele Pettit provided photos for this story, in addition to factual research. Lowell Siegele provided close-up photos of the tombstones found at the Buell Ave. (Walton?) site. Myra Voss of the County Pioneer Cemetery Commission provided additional information on the burial sites and actions of the Commission. Matt Tschirgi of Pikes Peak State Park provided information on state ownership of property around McGregor.

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