From left Wendell Biggs, Paul French, and Matt Morrison, members of the Des Moines County Pioneer Cemetery Commission take a break from clearing brush and trimming trees, Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Wykert Cemetery in Burlington. The cemetery is one of 48 pioneer cemeteries that the commission looks after. Photo by John Lovretta
By Andy Schneider
Des Moines County’s oldest cemeteries remain because of the efforts of the Des Moines County Pioneer Commission.
Maintaining the forgotten cemeteries in rural areas and small towns is a full-time job. Fortunately, the local pioneer commission is up to the task.
A pioneer cemetery is where 12 or fewer burials have occurred in the preceding 50 years. Often these sites are family burial or rural church cemeteries. Some of the oldest plots pre-date the Civil War and even embalming.
In 1996, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill into law stating that the county board of supervisors could establish a cemetery commission to maintain the oldest pioneer cemeteries in the state. There are 99 counties in Iowa, and 60-80 have small pioneer cemeteries. As of 2023, only 30 counties in Iowa have a cemetery commission.
“Before the law, it was the duty of the township trustees to care for abandoned cemeteries,” said Herb Price, the chairman of the Des Moines County Prairie Cemetery Commission.
Above: Matt Morrison and Wendell Biggs members of the Des Moines County Pioneer Cemetery Commission, clear brush, Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Wykert Cemetery in Burlington. The cemetery is one of 48 pioneer cemeteries that the commission looks after. Photo/John Lovretta
The Des Moines County Prairie Cemetery Commission was founded in 1999 by John Danielson. Currently, there are nine members. Herb Price is the current chairman and a central figure in the Des Moines County Pioneer Cemetery Commission since he became a member in 2010.
“Legally, what we are supposed to do is keep the cemeteries in good maintenance, and keep them mowed,” Price said.
Fred Wetzel has been a central figure in the commission, holding it together for years. Wendell Biggs is the current secretary-treasurer for the commission.
Under Iowa law, local governments must notify landowners when a cemetery or burial site has been identified if that site is not within an existing cemetery. For sites older than 150 years old, government officials are required to notify the state archaeologist.
The Des Moines County Commission has an annual budget of $30,000.
The amount of funding is determined by the county board and is paid by the county general fund.
“We are only established when the Board of Supervisors decides so,” Price said.
There are 108 documented cemeteries in Des Moines County, and 36 of those are active, 72 are pioneer cemeteries, and 12 are lost and cannot be found. Often these sites are in remote areas, overgrown, and with headstones that require maintenance.
Finding people who are willing to maintain these sites is not easy.
Last spring, a new burial plot was located in Des Moines County. The plot belongs to the Neff family. This would be the 109th cemetery in the state.
“I got a call from an individual who said, ‘I know where two tombstones are leaning up against a tree”, Price said.
After investigating, they found that the tombstones were from a mother and son. The mother died in childbirth, and the son died six months later. The father later moved away and became a judge in another state. These sorts of family burial grounds are why the Prairie Commission is so important.
These members devote a lot of time to preserving these sites.
Most of the members of the commission are older residents. When these members cannot do it, they worry about who will take their place.
The stories that these small cemeteries tell are interesting and historic. Maintaining these small cemeteries is preserving the history of the county.
Above: Paul French, a member of the Des Moines County Pioneer Cemetery Commission, carries a branch as several members were clearing brush and trimming trees. Photo/John Lovretta