In the eastern Iowa town of Bellevue, volunteers have pieced together their town’s history stone by stone. They’ve used muscle and brains to restore the town’s historic cemetery, which dates to the earliest days of Iowa’s white settlement.
Cemeteries are lonesome places between funerals. Even on those occasions, people tend to swarm in, sit in temporary folding chairs, say a few words about their loved one going to a better place, then head home for sandwiches and funeral potatoes. When Memorial Day comes around, cemeteries become busier, full of people driving up and down the rows of headstones, looking for the marker that indicates the final resting place of the person they seek. Plastic flowers poked into vases, the gravesite is said to “look very nice” for the holiday. And while some people make tending gravesites of loved ones a habit, let a few generations pass and no one is left to do that work, other than a few dutiful strangers.
It isn’t just gravesites of individuals that inevitably cede into anonymity. Entire cemeteries sometimes fade away, swallowed by vegetation or vandalized by reckless revelers. In Bellevue, Iowa, on the western edge of the Mississippi River, a very old city cemetery almost suffered that fate. The “old city cemetery” as it is descriptively known fell into disrepair long before the city officially closed it in 1995. According to local volunteers, that decision was merely a formal proclamation of the abandonment that started in the 1970s.
Iowa didn’t become a state until 1846, but whites began settling the area with the Black Hawk Purchase in 1833. Most of the early white settlement started along the Mississippi River. Some of the graves in the city cemetery date back to this period, and include Civil War veterans and players in Bellevue’s early settlement history.
Most of Bellevue’s deceased over the years have been buried in the Catholic, Lutheran or Presbyterian cemeteries. But enough people were motivated either by knowing their ancestors were buried in the city cemetery, or by desiring to preserve Bellevue history for the future, that they wanted to act to restore the old graveyard. One of those volunteers, Frank Wetzstein, is a retired engineer and member of the local Rotary club. He recalled that in the 1970s, Rotarians and other locals tried to spruce up the old city cemetery. However, that project “fizzled out,” he said. Then in a later effort, “once a summer a few of us would go up there and glue pieces of a stone together, tamp it into the ground, and hope it would stay vertical,” he said.
Then a few years back, a guest speaker at a weekly Rotary lunch explained a cemetery restoration project in which she was involved in a nearby town. “Her talk inspired us to attack the problem,” Wetzstein said. Starting in 2009, that’s what they did. In true engineer fashion he and volunteers, mainly from Rotary and the American Legion, began digging three-foot deep holes for bases— safely below the frost line— filling them with concrete, and resetting the toppled stones on top. They average resetting 24 monuments a year. They’ve completed work on about a hundred of them, with a few dozen to go.
They’ve learned to work a bit smarter: Now high school football players dig the holes, and a volunteer uses his John Deere Gator to lift headstones and lower them onto newly poured concrete bases. They don’t work in the hottest months of the Iowa summer, but a few good weeks in spring and fall can be enough to repair and restore a lot of gravesites. If all goes according to plan, 2013 will be the last year of the heavy construction project.
One problem that evaded an engineering solution was how to deal with bits and pieces of gravestone that had been broken over the years and unceremoniously tossed off a precipice at the cemetery’s edge. Part of the solution comes from Rotarian Pam Wetzstein, Frank’s wife and a cemetery-restoration volunteer. She assembled lists of who was buried in the cemetery, which came to her from two sources. So far, they’ve also identified grave markers for 11 people whose names don’t appear on either list. Being able to contribute information to the historical record “makes us feel great,” she said.
By comparing names from the lists, and also by relying on their familiarity with local surnames, volunteers were able to decipher the eroded and lichen-covered lettering of the broken headstones. Through some careful jigsaw puzzle-working, volunteers such as retired veterinarian Roger Schladetzky and his wife Eunice were able to piece together the bits. Once they assembled all the parts of a headstone they could locate, these were set into a newly poured marker, then placed on a new base. What they had no way of knowing for sure was where those markers originally stood. In other words, they didn’t know where the matching remains were buried.
Some cemetery restoration projects get stymied at this juncture because there are individuals who feel strongly that displaced headstones must be replaced above the corresponding graves. There is a method of finding remains beneath the ground called grave dowsing. The guest speaker at the Rotary meeting had espoused dowsing during her talk. William E. Whittaker of the Iowa State Archaeologist office addressed this method in his published paper “Grave Dowsing Reconsidered.”
He wrote in part, “Currently dowsing is used by believers to find not only graves, but water, water pipes, broken pipes, buried electrical lines, lost people, buried foundations, rchaeological sites, buried treasures, coal, oil, gold, gems, prehistoric trails, and ‘Earth Rays’ (a magical energy emanating from deep in the planet). Essentially, dowsing is used to find whatever the believer wants to find below ground, or, in the case of lost people, hopefully above ground.”
After a succession of experiments described in this paper, Whittaker determined that dowsing was not an effective approach for locating unmarked graves. Wetzstein said the Bellevue group considered the dowsing method. Their main objective was to preserve the cemetery for history, not to locate bodies. “We asked ourselves, if we knew where the bodies were buried, would this change our approach? The answer was no.” The most important thing was to repair and plant the markers in a way that they’d last “for another hundred years,” he said.
Wetzstein said “we’ve had some criticism” that the volunteer group did not undertake an effort to locate remains before setting the newly repaired markers in freshly dug, concrete-filled, frost-heave-proof holes. But this volunteer effort, undertaken mostly by retirees has its heart in the right place. Explained Frank Wetzstein ,“If we aren’t sure where a marker goes, we try to put it near the family, where it seems to belong.”
Julianne Couch is the author of Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy (University of Nebraska Press, 2013). She writes about small town culture from her home in Bellevue, Iowa.