They may be tucked away amid a lonely grove of trees with only a rutted dirt road leading to the site. They may sit prominently along the side of the road. They may not be noticeable from any vantage point.
Many of Jackson County's pioneer cemeteries had all but vanished from the landscape and recent memory until the Jackson County Pioneer Cemetery Commission formed in 1993. County residents became concerned about the complete neglect of the very old cemeteries. Cemeteries are labeled as pioneer cemeteries if there have been six or fewer burials there in the preceding 50 years.
The commission has identified more than 80 such cemeteries in the county. Commission president JoAnn Caven, who represents Monmouth, South Fork and Maquoketa townships, said the commission learns of about 12 "new" old cemeteries each year. Information about such cemeteries typically comes from word-of-mouth and obituaries.
It was quite by accident that commission members learned of their latest project.
"We were on the cemetery tour (sponsored by the commission and the Jackson County Historical Museum) when Steve Till asked why we hadn't included Risinger Cemetery on the tour," remembered commission member Don Wentworth. "We were driving right past the cemetery but the commission had never heard of it."
Risinger Cemetery is located about two miles off Iron Bridge road south of Andrew. Also referred to as Cornelius Farm Cemetery, Dark Hollow Cemetery, Entringer Farm Cemetery or Kimball Farm Cemetery, this burial ground rests high atop a hill overlooking timberland and cropland, with a hint of the city of Andrew peeking out in the distance.
Pioneer cemetery commissioners immediately spoke to the surrounding landowner and researched the cemetery at the museum to find out what information was available. The commission obtained a quit-claim deed to the cemetery site, which is less than an acre. The deed gives possession of the cemetery site to the county's pioneer cemetery commission. After acquiring the deed, commissioners headed onto the site for their first workday session.
Enlisting the help of dowzer Don Droeszler, the commission determines the cemetery's boundaries. The site will later be fenced in to preserve it and protect it from machinery and wild animals. The dowzing process is amazing to observe if one keeps an open mind. In this case much like "water witching," dowzing involves searching for the final resting place of those buried in the cemetery. Using two sturdy wire hangers, energy fields and a focused mind, Droeszler pinpoints the locations of burials.
At Risinger Cemetery, which adults remember used to have 20-60 headstones, Droeszler found potential burial locations and commissioners marked the spots for future probing. When given names of people known to have been buried in Risinger, Droeszler was able to point out precisely where the energy fields indicated they were buried, including a mother, father, daughter and baby son.
While the dowzing took place at Risinger Cemetery, other commissioners and volunteers cleared the overgrown brush and began probing for bases, monuments, footings, etc. that might have been buried during the 134 years since the cemetery was founded as a family burial plot in 1870. It is often exhausting work but it's "a group effort. Everyone does what they are physically capable of doing," Caven explained.
The volunteers use metal rods to probe into the soil in search of monuments, footstones or bases. The probing, brush clearing, tree-cutting is best done in early spring when the ground thaws and new plant life hasn't begun to grow.
The first workday at Risinger Cemetery lasted early morning through to the afternoon. Droeszler marked out 20 potential burial sites while he was there; the commission only knows the names of four people who were buried there. The volunteers cleaned up the monument belonging to the great-nephew of Iowa's first governor Ansel Briggs.
The workers used a chainsaw to chop down some overgrown trees and a tractor to haul the trees down to a nearby brush pile. A break for lunch and it was back to the grindstone.
Next steps at Risinger Cemetery include fencing in the site to avoid any further damage to the cemetery. Two gates will be installed - one to allow people to walk through and one for maintenance equipment to enter.
Pioneer cemetery commissioners will continue to probe the soil in hopes of finding more buried monuments. The two gravestones and footstone which have already been found will be repaired and new foundations will be poured to ensure the safety and strength of the monuments. When the cemetery is in better shape, the area will be routinely mowed and weeds will be sprayed to keep the area well maintained. A sign bearing the name of Risinger Cemetery will also be posted at the site. The systematic restoration of the pioneer cemeteries continues throughout the county. The commissioners' work is far from over.
"Jim Clark (now deceased) was instrumental in putting the commission together," Caven said. "He certainly knew his county history. He had an unreal memory and knew where the bodies were buried."
The Jackson County Pioneer Cemetery Commission operates on budget, which has been reduced because of funding cuts this year. Part of the budget is used for maintenance, which includes a lot mowing. The commission would like to see 4-H clubs, FFA chapters or various Boy/Girl Scout troops "adopt" a cemetery as a community service project.
Monument repair tips
Restoring pioneer cemeteries includes much more than simply removing brush, cutting trees and mowing the grass. "I think one of the problems we have with pioneer cemeteries now is that proper-sized bases were not used then," Caven said. "You have to make sure the new bases are large enough and deep enough not to tip over later. There are regulations." Caven said that some cemeteries have their own regulations and measurements regarding bases. She recommends families be familiar with the rules before purchasing a monument. "Today many cemeteries have a contract with one person or business to pour all of the new foundations. This is a good decision, as all new bases will meet the requirements and will last for a very, very long time," Caven said. Caven also recommended using the proper long-term epoxy when repairing broken monuments in the cemetery.
Caven and Wentworth also offered tips on cleaning monuments. "Never use metal (such as metal brush) to clean a monument," Caven said. "Use pressure washers carefully." They said bleach can be used to remove moss and lichens from monuments; however, be sure the bleach is very weak. Bleach will eat at white marble. A safer cleaning solution uses water combined with lemon juice and a stiff plastic or nylon brush to remove growth from monuments. Be sure to use gallons of water to completely remove any chemical buildup left while cleaning the gravestone. "If you see any damage being done as you work on the monument, stop," Caven advised.
Wentworth offered advice for individuals who find a buried headstone or one that has been laying on its face (inscriptions). "If you turn it over to clean it, put it back face down," he said. Being facedown in the soil preserves the inscriptions and the actual headstone. Abruptly being exposed to the sunlight and the elements can rapidly cause the stone to deteriorate.
The Jackson County Pioneer Cemetery Commission welcomes volunteers to help with cemetery workdays and other work. The group is currently looking for a person from the Bellevue area to join the commission, which includes representation from each township in the county. The commission routinely holds meetings on the fourth Thursday of the each month. The meetings are open to the public.
Commissioners are also seeking any old records, information or photographs pertaining to past or present cemeteries in the area. Information and records can be scanned and returned. The commission has the capability to scan and return photos immediately so the photos never have to leave the owner's home.
The pioneer cemetery commission also accepts donations. Donations can be offered for the commission's overall work or for a specifically-designated cemetery in the Jackson County.
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