for The Burlington Beacon
Tucked off the north side of Sunnyside Avenue in Burlington is a treasure trove of historical significance – Aspen Grove Cemetery. This historical significance has earned it a place on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
Michael Bloomer, Aspen Grove Cemetery Administrator, said the process to be placed on the register began seven years ago and culminated in nomination to the registry on April 22, 2022. Of the approximately 2,400 places on the registry in Iowa, only 40 are cemeteries. For a cemetery of significance to be placed on the registry, three out of four criteria need to be met: the cemetery derives its primary significance from the graves of transcendent importance, age, distinctive design features, and association with historic events.
Bloomer said Aspen Grove Cemetery ticked all four boxes. The process to be placed on the register is a multi-layer effort involving arduous research into the cemetery itself and the historical significance of the individuals who are buried therein.
Before a site can be placed on the registry, it must be approved for nomination by the State Historic Preservation Office of Iowa. While the idea to seek and receive this placement began in 2015, the actual work didn’t begin in earnest until Bloomer was hired as Aspen Grove Cemetery administrator in 2018.
Initial contact was made by Paul French from Aspen Grove Cemetery Association to the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. That organization suggested the hiring of a Field Service Consultant to evaluate Aspen Grove Cemetery and advise on the suitability for nomination. Leah Rogers from Tallgrass Archeology, Iowa City, was hired due to her working knowledge of cemeteries in Iowa. The Iowa Site Inventory form and the evaluation by Rogers were submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in February 2020. In April 2020, SHPO determined Aspen Grove was eligible for nomination, and Rogers was hired to complete the work necessary to gain the Registry placement.
Meeting the Criteria
Several unique factors led to the placement on the Registry according to Bloomer, including architecture – Aspen Grove has the steepest climb for a cemetery as it has few standing structures. However, Aspen Grove also has seven mausoleums representing three architectural styles: Mid-19th Century, Late Victorian, and Late 19th-20th Century Revival. Aspen Grove also represents all three styles of cemetery landscape design specific to an era: Rural, 1831-1870; Lawn Park, 1855-1920; and Memorial,1917-present.
Burials of people with historical significance include four Iowa Governors: Henry Dodge, Wisconsin Territorial Governor; James S. Clark, the Founder of the first newspaper in Burlington and the last Iowa territorial governor; James W. Grimes, Iowa’s third governor; and John H. Gear, the 10th Governor of the State of Iowa. Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Nicholas Bouquet is buried there along with several Civil War Generals.
Aspen Grove Cemetery was also placed on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom in 2016. This designation also contributed to the cemetery’s nomination to the registry. Aspen Grove is the final resting place of Rachel Bundy, whose court case is considered the first in Iowa territory in which an enslaved person gained freedom through the court system. Letty Sandridge and her husband, an enslaved couple who purchased their freedom, are also buried in Aspen Grove.
Bloomer said the German landscape architect responsible for the design of the City of Burlington’s public park system, Charles Starker, is responsible for the layout and design of the cemetery. Starker was president of the Aspen Grove Cemetery Association from 1875-1900.
William Steyh, a landscape designer and architect, was also involved in the design of the cemetery. William L.B. Jenney, eventually known as the “Father of Skyscrapers,” built Corse Chapel where General Corse is buried. Harvey Irving Goddard designed the Potter Memorial building and gateway off Corse Street. This still stands today.
A Timeline of Aspen Grove
In 1843, the public demanded a regularly established cemetery where burials could be made with more assurance of security. A group of Burlington citizens asked the Iowa territorial legislature for permission to establish a cemetery. The Aspen Grove Cemetery Association was chartered in December of 1843 by the Iowa Territorial Legislature through James Wilson Grimes who at the time was a member of the Territorial House of Representatives. Grimes would eventually become the third governor of Iowa and a US Senator from Iowa. He is buried at Aspen Grove Cemetery.
Aspen Grove Cemetery Association approved their charter and accepted incorporation January 3, 1844, and John Carpenter was the first person to be buried there in March 1844. Aspen Grove is believed to have been the first incorporated cemetery in the state of Iowa, and the longest in continuous operation. It is also the longest continuously operating business in Burlington according to Bloomer. The City of Burlington does not currently have a city-owned cemetery, which is unusual for a city of its size, he indicated.
The City of Burlington’s first public cemetery, Smith Cemetery, officially closed in 1852. Established in June 1841, this cemetery was located at the site of the former Apollo School. Many of the city’s pioneers were disinterred and moved to Aspen Grove. As a result, several monuments in the original part of Aspen Grove predate the cemetery.
In the spring of 1852, Abner and Elizabeth Leonard deeded to the City of Burlington 3.37 acres adjacent to the Aspen Grove Cemetery (north) as the new public cemetery. This cemetery would be incorporated into Aspen Grove Cemetery.
Aspen Grove Today
Today, the current cemetery incorporates 133 acres of land. On that land are approximately 3,000 trees, 6.3 miles of roadway, catch basins and gutter systems, 40,000 burials, and 80,000 monuments. The cemetery is rich with Burlington and Iowa history for those seeking information and tracing roots. Art and architecture also abound at the location.
Placement on the National Register of Historic Places will assist Aspen Grove Cemetery with receiving grant money to support the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery grounds, structures, and monuments. Future projects include the return of a cannon barrel. Bloomer said the dedication for this will be held November 11, 2022. The amphitheater is also about to undergo a restoration.
“We have a well-cared-for cemetery that we want people to come out and enjoy. We get people who walk out here and bicycle, and we welcome that,” Bloomer said.