IAGenWeb Bremer County

Note: The following article is reproduced here with the permission of Anelia K. Dimitrova, its author and the Regional Managing Editor, Community Media Group, which publishes the Waverly Democrat.

by Anelia K. Dimitrova
Waverly Democrat, 6 February 2007

Harvey Schwarze was 10 when he came to a life-saving realization. The only way to avoid school bullies, he thought, was to become a true American. The grandson of German immigrants, and the third son of Louis Schwarze and Ida Schultz, Harvey figured out that being a second-generation native was not enough for his Tripoli classmates to accept him as one of their own.

His survival plan was simple - he asked his teacher to change the last two letters of his family name from Schwarze to Schwartz.

It was 1918.

Harvey’s older brother, Lawrence, also changed his name, but his younger siblings, Esther and Raymond, did not because by the time they were old enough to go to school, the war was over and no one picked on them.

It is unclear whether the change from the last to the 19th letter of the alphabet in Harvey’s family name spelled an immediate effect on his happiness, but the little boy’s trick appears to have worked long term since Harvey Schwartz lived a full life and raised four boys with wife, Ruth.

Sixty-seven years later, little Harvey’s brave decision to reinvent himself by Americanizing his last name paid off in an unexpected way.

One of his sons, Louis, started wondering about family history after he helped his son, Steven, with his sixth-grade history class.

“He wanted to know about his grandparents on my side, Louis and Ida Schwarze and on my wife’s side, Earnest and Vivian Kvidera,” Louis says. “That made me realize I didn’t know anything about my grandpas and grandmas and their sisters and brothers.”

Tracing ancestors’ steps brought excitement to the life of the Janesville man, who worked during the day installing computer lines for the telephone company and went to local libraries at night to keep researching his roots.

About a year ago, empowered by the Internet, Louis found the gravestone of his wife’s relatives, Charles and Anna Kvidera of Arlington, Ill.

It was then that he realized he was on a bigger mission than just satisfying his own curiosity.

The timing coincided with the creation of Iowagravestones.org, a free Web site launched by Cedar Rapids father-and-son team, Rich and Jeff Lowe. [Note: The Iowa Gravestone Photo Project is a Special Project of IAGenWeb, which is part of USGenWeb. Its mission is to provide free genealogical resources on websites developed and maintained by volunteers.]

A novice to the digital world at 62, Louis thought it worthwhile to conquer the Internet and reach others like him around the globe who wanted to find their families’ final resting places.

In May 2005, he marked the street addresses of the 55 cemeteries in Bremer County on a map he had obtained at the Readlyn Library, slung his digital Canon Powershot around his neck and started on his quest.

His first stop was Waverly’s Harlington Cemetery, where his father, Harvey, is buried. [Harvey's gravestone]

He resisted the temptation to start with family and chose the northeast corner as his point of entry, reasoning that he would only take pictures of the oldest graves.

But the task of giving permanence to the past in a digital future became so consuming that, a month later, Louis had a complete inventory of over 7,000 images, documenting every single headstone and the two crypts there.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to him, Waverly resident Patty Sauerbrei had taken it upon herself to document the gravestones in her own church, St. John Lutheran Church, Maxfield, in rural Denver.

Following in the footsteps of long-time church member, the late Alto Boyce of Denver, who had mapped out the cemetery about 20 years ago, Patty decided it was her duty to bring the project to completion during the 150th anniversary of the church’s founding, which also coincided with the sesquicentennial celebration of the town of Denver.

With the help of congregation members Lisa Cox and daughter Haleigh, Patty took over 200 gravestone photos, including close-ups of the faded inscriptions, and then cross referenced them with the burial register to make sure everyone had been accounted for. She even compiled a map with the location of each grave to enable searches.

“Some of our stones are getting in bad shape,” Patty says, “and on some of them the writing on them fades a little more each year.”

Documenting the past and opening the repository of crumbling and enduring gravestones to a worldwide audience is one of the most meaningful volunteer jobs for local history buffs, says Karlyn Armstrong, head of the Bremer County Historical Preservation Committee.

In her favorite cemetery, Grove Hill, east of Readlyn on Highway 3, many stones are losing the battle with time.

“That has a number of headstones we cannot read and that information is lost, especially the older stones are all gradually being erased,” she says.

But while local preservationists’ efforts cannot reverse the damage caused by the elements, Louis finds it intellectually fulfilling that the thousands of images he has taken in Bremer County cemeteries so far have become a part of a state- and nation-wide network.

For Louis, one of his biggest surprises in accomplishing this project has been the discovery that pioneer graves in Bremer County date back to the late 1850s. The shape of the gravestones and the material reflect the period in which they were installed, he says. Limestone and other softer stones mark the early graves. The cast zinc gravestones popular during WWI have been replaced in the past 50 years by marble.

“The cast iron markers are very popular with Bohemians,” he says, “and the Spillville cemetery is full of them whereas around here I saw only one.”

Old gravestones tend to list the person’s name, age and the date of death. Some of the fancier ones occasionally have a passage from the Bible in German, Louis adds.

“I realized how hard the pioneer life was,” says Louis, summing up what he has learned in the process, “there was lots of times we see a whole family that died because they didn’t have the medical facilities they have now, lots of children died. But even then it was possible to reach an advanced age. Sarah Ingersoll, buried in Andrews Cemetery, was born in 1788 and died July 1, 1894, at the age of 105 years 8 months and 14 days.”

Many of the newer stones are not just markers of a loved one’s resting place, Louis says, but an elaborate canvass of craftsmanship with scenes from the deceased’s favorite farm or hunting scenes in different colors.

Contemplating someone’s gravestone is like taking a snapshot of the way they lived, says Louis.

“In 2001, my wife and I went to Germany and Czechoslovakia to visit the towns where our ancestors came from,” he says. “We met the family in Czechoslovakia who is living on the same ground but not the same house her grandfather lived in. Shortly after they left for the United States, the new family's children were playing with matches and burned the house down. In 2006, we went to Scotland to visit the towns where my ancestors came from on my mother’s side. And we visited graves there and found my great-great-great grandparents’ stone and took a picture of it. We weren't able to find any graves in Germany because people are reburied in the same plots and new stones are erected.”

Connecting the past with the present enriches Louis’ life in ways he could not have imagined.

“I have met lots of people I would never have met otherwise,” he says.

What a timeless tribute to one Harvey Schwarze, born Jan. 5, 1908, on a farm west of Tripoli, who has been resting in peace under a pine tree in the southwest corner of the Harlington Cemetery since Dec. 19, 1966.