- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

DANVILLE, Iowa (AP) - The long dead buried in the old Danville cemetery finally may be resting in peace, thanks to recent improvements made by the Des Moines County Pioneer Cemetery Commission.

The landlocked cemetery, which sits behind property owned by former Danville mayor Leroy Lippert, now has a large sign that displays a list of names of those interred there.

After sitting abandoned for decades, it’s a miracle the cemetery is marked at all. The forgotten graveyard served as farmland for a number of years before the commission reclaimed it and cleaned it up.

Since the first burial was made in 1842, figuring out the exact parameters of the cemetery wasn’t an easy job. The graveyard originally belonged to the Danville Congregational Church, and many buried there were some of the church’s first parishioners. Until a few years ago, the cemetery was nothing more than a jumbled pile of weathered stones.

The most recent known burial was that of a Dr. J. Hall in 1897.

“It’s hard to tell where everybody is buried,” said commission chairman Herb Price.

The $280 sign that commemorates the people buried there was just erected in August of this year, but the restoration work started long before that. After a yearslong dispute between Lippert and the commission, the property finally was deeded over to the commission.

“The Old Danville Cemetery has been a problem since the early years of the commission because of the condition and also the undefined fence lines,” said commission member Fred Wetzel.

Since the original fencing around the cemetery had deteriorated so much, the commission worked with Lippert in 2010 and 2011 to define the outlines of the cemetery so it could be restored. It would have been nearly impossible without aerial maps provided by Iowa State University. The cemetery officially was surveyed in August 2012 for $2,000.

“Starting in the 1930s, there were aerial shots of Iowa done every 10 years,” Price said. “The cemetery was plain as day.”

A local contractor started resetting the stones in 2013, pouring several concrete bases that now hold the remains of the most damaged tombstones. The stones were meticulously pieced together by the commission members and other volunteers, and some are barely legible.

“You see that tombstone there? That one was probably farmed over,” volunteer William Walker said while pointing to a faded tombstone with several gashes across the front. “That’s the problem. These stones are made of marble, and that’s a soft material. It doesn’t last.”

Constructing the concrete pads cost the commission a little more than $6,000, and the work was just completed earlier this summer. With the new sign up and the remaining tombstones put together, the commission finally can close the book on a project that has dragged on for more than a decade.

Members of the commission agree they wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as they did without the help of Mount Pleasant historian Joy Conwell. Price said her work has been paramount to getting the cemetery recognized.

“The Lord has blessed me. He sent me a descendent of the people buried there, and under Iowa law, they have a lot more rights than an ordinary person,” Price said.

Conwell learned of the Des Moines County Pioneer Cemetery Commission’s efforts when she saw a picture of one of her ancestor’s tombstones in The Hawk Eye (https://bit.ly/1wbZFe5 ). The photo accompanied a story about the commission’s efforts to reclaim the graveyard, and Conwell was keen to join the fight.

“My husband called them (the commission) the other men in my life,” Conwell said with a laugh.

The revelation turned into a personal quest for Conwell and her husband, Ed. Over the past couple of years, they have devoted many hours of their free time to researching the cemetery and its occupants. Conwell already suspected her many-times great-aunts, grandparents and other relatives were buried in southeast Iowa, and she finally had proof.

“When you lose something like a cemetery, when that fades away, people don’t remember the history. A cemetery isn’t just a burial site. It is not a place to just put bones. It is where the story of our past is preserved. You can go there, and it really is a learning opportunity,” said Conwell, who works in the special collections section of the Chadwick Library at Iowa Wesleyan College.

The Conwells have amassed a treasure trove of data on Danville’s early history, including links to North America’s early Puritan settles, a typhoid plague and a feud that drove a deep wedge between brothers who were early prominent settlers.

Conwell and the commission members gave much credit to the work and research of the late John Weyrick, who dedicated much of his time to reclaiming the Old Danville Cemetery.

“Back at the turn of the century, there was a hog butchering plant between Danville and Middletown, and they were cited because they were bleeding into the drinking water, and there was typhoid epidemic here,” Conwell said. “I suspect that even at that time, the cemetery was becoming not as used.”

Conwell’s ancestor, Abiram Gaylord, who died June 6, 1871, was the brother of the Rev. Reuben Gaylord, the first pastor of Danville’s Congregational Church.

Reuben Gaylord also ended up burying many of his family members in the church’s cemetery, including his first child with Mary Welles Gaylord, his sister Mary Gaylord and Hiram and Harriet Gaylord.

Before her research project began, Conwell knew only that Mary Gaylord was buried somewhere in Danville. She didn’t know where and didn’t know about the rest of the family until later.

“For years, we kept looking at Jaggar Cemetery and could not find her. We knew she was buried by a tree by the church,” Conwell said.

Gaylord eventually decided to settle down and become the full-time pastor of the Danville Congregational Church. While there, he helped found the Iowa College, which has since become known as Grinnell College.

After 15 years in Danville, Gaylord packed up his family and moved to Omaha, where he became known as the father of Congregationalism in Nebraska and helped found Doane College in Crete, Nebraska.

“We transcribed all the early records of the church and gave them to the church (Danville Congregational Church) for their 150th anniversary,” Conwell said. “That was a fun experience.”

Among those believed to be interred at Old Danville Cemetery is one of the town’s founding mothers, Harriet Messenger, a hard-working woman unafraid of work traditionally left to men.

Messenger and her brother, Alanson, platted Danville. Their father was the town’s first postmaster.

“Harriet was the first woman surveyor in Iowa,” Conwell said.

Jeremiah Hall, who built the first school house at Danville Center and was the town’s first physician, was buried at the Old Danville Cemetery in 1897. His is the latest known interment to have taken place there.

While researching those early Iowa settlers, Conwell soon noticed a number of deaths and burials took place about the same time in 1866, suggesting some kind of disaster.

It was William Carden, or at least his obituary, that tipped her to the cause. Carden died Feb. 14, 1866.

“Typhoid fever prevailed as an epidemic, and several members of his family were stricken down, but only he was taken leaving the family circle broken, the heart of his devoted wife crushed by the blow, and his children fatherless at an early age,” reads his obituary, which Conwell found in the “Portrait Biographical Album of Des Moines County, Iowa,” published in 1888.

Conwell suspects the typhoid epidemic struck the community’s young particularly hard and led to one community member being told by grandparents the Old Danville Cemetery was a children’s graveyard.

Her research also has hinted at a division among early Danville residents that drove a deep wedge between the brothers Samuel and Luther Jaggar.

While the Congregational Church of Danville first met in Samuel Jaggar’s home, he eventually lef thte church and in December 1951, started the First Presbyterian Church of Middletown.

After their deaths, Samuel Jaggar was buried in the Jaggar Cemetery, while Luter Jaggar was buried in the Old Danville Cemetery, Conwell said. Luther’s family marker was moved in recent decades to the Jaggar Cemetery west of town.

There’s many more in the cemetery who have yet to be identified, but the research only goes so far. Still, Conwell refuses to give up.

“I think we’ve found every person we can positively identify,” Conwell said. “There may be something in their personal papers where we can pick up a name or two over time.”

In 1999, the state Legislature passed a law mandating that each county be responsible for maintaining pioneer cemeteries. Consisting of nine members, the Des Moines County Pioneer Commission was formed that same year.

Not every county has a cemetery commission, and there are just over 20 in the entire state. Price has been part of the commission for a number of years and joined after retiring from General Electric.

“I’ve always been fascinated with cemeteries. Some of these cemeteries are just beautiful,” Price said.

A pioneer cemetery originally was defined as a graveyard with fewer than six burials in the past 50 years. The Iowa Legislature upped that number to 13 burials in 2009, though cemeteries maintained by other organizations aren’t included in that definition.

“This part of the state was settled earlier, and there were a lot of burials in the backyard,” Walker said.

The commission maintains 35 pioneer cemeteries in Des Moines County, though there are 93 in the entire county. Price said about 30 of the remaining 58 are mowed every six weeks, and 12 of them are too difficult to access for regular upkeep. Eleven cemeteries have been completely lost to time, though the commission knows they exist.

“We kind of know where they’re at, but we don’t know exactly where they’re at,” Price said.

The commission levis a small tax of less than 2 cents per $1,000 of taxable property to fund its efforts. That amounted to about $23,000 last year, and most of that money was used for mowing.

At this point, that’s the only comfort the commission can provide to the long dead - the respect of the living.

“We’ll continue to maintain it and pay to have it mowed,” Price said. “Seventy years from now, these stones will be harder and harder to read, but the bones will still be in the ground.”

___

Information from: The Hawk Eye, https://www.thehawkeye.com

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