- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A 115-year-old mausoleum containing an Iowa governor’s remains is showing its age, with part of the structure collapsing and a family of raccoons living inside the shelter.

Sen. Dennis Black, D-Grinnell, visited the gravesite of Iowa Gov. Samuel Merrill in Des Moines’ Woodland Cemetery last summer and was so appalled by the damage that he’s seeking state funding to pay for its restoration.

“A governor of Iowa is a special person, and it’s up to us to do the job,” Black said.

Black said an oak tree had toppled onto the mausoleum, forcing the northern wall outward. The concrete roof is also beginning to crumble.

During his inspection of the site at the sprawling cemetery just west of downtown last summer, Black said he spotted a family of raccoons that had taken shelter inside the mausoleum. He thinks the animals are likely holing up there through the winter.

Unless the structure is repaired soon, Black said the mausoleum is sure to collapse and crush Merrill’s casket within.

To avoid that inglorious fate, Black has requested $100,000 for a restoration in the Senate’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The goal is to return the former governor’s mausoleum to its original condition, preserving a piece of Iowa history, he said.

Merrill was born in Maine in 1822 and lived in New Hampshire before moving to Iowa in the 1850s, according to the National Governors Association. He was a colonel in the Civil War and was seriously injured during his service.

He later worked as president of a bank in the eastern Iowa city of McGregor. Merrill, a Republican, was elected twice to two-year terms as governor, serving from 1868 to 1872. During his time in office, lawmakers approved construction of the current Capitol.

Merrill died Aug. 31, 1899.

Typically, gravesite upkeep at the cemetery is handled by the family and friends of the deceased, but Black said only one member of Merrill’s family remains, a great-great-granddaughter who lives in a nursing home in Oregon and is unable to fund the project. Given that, it’s up to the state to pay for the restoration, he said.

Black, a Democrat who has worked as a natural resource analyst and consultant, said Merrill’s resting place is unusual.

Other governors buried in Iowa have large burial stones, but only Merrill is enclosed in a mausoleum, which requires more upkeep. That’s why Black, who has long studied Iowa’s history, is focusing on Merrill’s gravesite.

If Black finds that other governors’ burial places need work in the future, he said he’d consider taking up another project so long as there’s no family remaining.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for state infrastructure spending, said after seeing pictures showing the mausoleum’s condition, he quickly agreed the Legislature needed to approve restoration funds.

Anyone who served as the state’s chief executive officer deserves respect, demonstrated by a burial site in good condition, McCoy said.

“Bottom line, it’s the right thing to do,” McCoy said.

Black said the requested funds would be appropriated to the state Department of Cultural Affairs to carry out the restoration. Any unused money would stay within the department for its use.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad already submitted his budget recommendation for the 2015 fiscal year, but spokesman Jimmy Centers said the governor would consider the funding should House and Senate lawmakers include it in their budget agreement.

Rep. Daniel Huseman, R-Aurelia, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement that his committee would consider Black’s proposal when he presents it.

Black said he expects to gain support for his proposal, which he said is a small price to pay to honor a significant figure in Iowa history.

“It’s important for the people of the state of Iowa,” Black said. “We are who we are because of those that came before us.”

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