- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

WEBSTER CITY, Iowa (AP) - Arch Foster was an undertaker who couldn’t prevent the grief he witnessed again and again, but he found a way to soothe it.

The solution was Babyland.

Officially Foster’s Addition for Babies, it is a seemingly blessed space in the heart of Webster City’s sprawling Graceland Cemetery.

Babies and children are buried there.

For free.

They still are.

“Mr. Foster saw a need at that time to have a baby cemetery because there was an epidemic,” said Bob Erickson, who was mentored by Foster in the funeral business and now owns Foster Funeral Home. “So he bought two acres of land at Graceland Cemetery.”

The Fort Dodge Messenger reports (https://bit.ly/1XYpFYD ) it was the early 1930s. The epidemic was likely diphtheria, often called croup because of a distinctive cough it triggered. Before vaccines, it was a child killer.

Foster knew that. Not only was he an undertaker, but he was the county coroner. Countless newspaper stories tell of him traveling in the early 1900s to the scene of a death.

The children hit him particularly hard.

But not just because they were young.

Foster had a soft spot for the families left behind because he knew an unexpected death could put a family into debt.

“It was during the Depression, during that time period before the Depression. And it was just a lot of people didn’t have any money,” Erickson said.

“The main purpose of this was there were spaces available to people and there was never a charge.”

The two acres Foster bought were, at the time, well west of Graceland Cemetery.

“(Graceland) existed, but not anywhere close to what he bought. But as time went on it just got surrounded.”

Foster was in the furniture business when he transplanted to Webster City from Independence in 1908, according to Daily Freeman-Journal records.

He bought J.W. Allington Furniture Co. and was in partnership with T.S. Curtis.

The storefront, at 637 Second St., housed what was called Foster Parlor.

“That’s what they were called in those days,” Erickson said.

Foster’s brother, William Foster, bought out Curtis in 1909 and the Foster Furniture Co. was born. The business extended to the east of the existing parlor in the 600 block.

“Also incorporated in the business was Foster’s Undertaking and Ambulance Service,” according to the Freeman-Journal. “Arch worked with both the furniture and undertaking, while his brother worked mainly in the furniture company.”

In 1916, William Foster moved to Algona.

When Arch Foster moved the business a few blocks to the stately former home of pioneer C.T. Fenton in 1927, it became Foster Funeral Home.

When Erickson first started working for Foster about 48 years ago, he lived right next door to the funeral home. Sometimes, when there was a stretch of quiet, he would go over at night and talk with his mentor.

“He would tell me some of the most unusual stories about the things that they had to do. And they had to work so hard,” Erickson said.

“He told the stories about getting a casket and the fluids that he would need for embalming and everything that he would think was needed. He would go from the funeral home here over to the depot and he would go on the train, off to Duncombe. The family would meet him there with a trailer and horses or a truck, whatever the situation might be, and he would go out to the farm and they did the embalming right there at the home,” Erickson said. “Then they would have the visitation in the house.”

The children of Babyland, which is its colloquial name, are buried in every other space, with empty graves between them.

“He had it plotted out to where there was roughly 500 to 600 spaces,” Erickson said. “Right now, there are approximately 300 burials there.

“And, back at that time, people were thinking that they didn’t want to have a small space, a small baby space, taking up a big space at the cemetery.”

A child’s plot takes up perhaps 2 feet by 40 inches.

“Mr. Foster made these available to people,” he said.

The little ones buried there are not necessarily from Webster City.

“There are people I know of, a child has died in Des Moines but because there is so much connection to Webster City that they wanted to have the burial up here,” Erickson said.

“The concept that he had for this really worked out well, because there were so many, so many deaths of young kids. It varied in age too. There are some out there who are 6, 8, 12 years old.”

Until the 1950s, Foster and his staff did the mowing.

Graceland Cemetery staff takes care of that now.

But Erickson, true to the legacy of his mentor, looks over his charges. Since Foster died in 1970, Erickson, who eventually acquired all of the stock in the funeral home, has made it a personal task to watch over Babyland.

Particularly around this time of the year.

“These are things that happen in life and we do not have control over them,” Erickson said.

Babyland is his now.

“As long as I’m around it will still be owned by Foster Funeral Home.”

___

Information from: The Messenger, https://www.messengernews.net

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