Polk County Cemetery

A Brief History.

By Patrick Walters

For those unfortunate souls who spent their last days at the Polk County Home and Insane Asylum, their burial in unmarked graves provided no memorial for the lives they lived.

"The Polk County Cemetery" is a story of two cemeteries. The Polk County Cemetery is commonly thought of to be a 10-acre plot west of Hwy 69 which was the subject of relocation in 1971. The Polk County Poor Farm also known as the County Farm, The Polk County Home and Asylum and other variations, originated with the purchase of the John Yost farm in Saylor township in 1865. Subsequent land was purchased west of the present-day Highway 69, (N E 14th St.). This land was not purchased until June of 1900. It was on this land west of Hwy 69 that a ten-acre portion was fenced and became the site of what many knew as the Polk County Cemetery.

In October of 1933 the condition of the cemetery west of Hwy 69 became a subject of a few articles in the Des Moines Register. The Highland Park American Legion post believed veterans from the Spanish-American War had been buried there and were appalled at the condition of the cemetery. For the most part unmarked graves unmarked had been reclaimed by brambles and weeds. The Legion’s interest was to relocate the veterans buried there to another cemetery. One of only three pictures known to exist of the cemetery show “crumbling markers” “overgrown brambles and weeds.” The result was a clean-up of the cemetery and the Legion abandoning their demand with assurance from Will McHone, superintendent of the farm, no veterans were buried there.

In 1971 the County wished to sell this land west of Hwy 69. This required digging up the remains and moving them. Nearby Pine Hill Cemetery agreed to accept the remains. Only one grave had a marker with a name on it. An account signed by O. R. Hibbler the Acting Director of the Home at the time records 77 bodies and 3 empty graves were “dis-interned” with the remains placed in eight pine boxes and reinterned at the Pinehill (sic) Cemetery. A contemporaneous newspaper account reported ten boxes were moved. A list of sixty-three names was gathered from the records at the Polk County Home and put in the hands of Mr. Hurley at Pine Hill Cemetery. What was not questioned at the time was some on that list died and were buried before the land west of Hwy 69 was purchased. Hence it is not plausible they were among those moved to Pine Hill even though their names appear on Pine Hill’s interment listings. In the 1970’s a review by Nick Hornyak and John Zeitler listed ninety-nine interments in the Polk County Cemetery.

The first recorded burial on the County Farm ground was in 1880. For those residents of the farm from 1880 until about 1901 burial would have been on ground east of Hwy 69. Again, the land west of Hwy 69 was not purchased until June 1900.

The Polk County Cemetery, in its first location was in the news in January 1896 with the discovery of two graves having been robbed. The police executed a search warrant at the Drake Medical School where three bodies were found. Two were from the farm. J. C. Brendel, Steward, identified James Muldoon, “Muldoon” a well-known character about town called "The Irish Orator" as one. Muldoon was 70 and had been a resident of the farm for 18 months. The second was James Anderson age 60 having been at the farm only a short time.

Record keeping by the Polk County Home was sporadic at best. Using Death Registers, Death Certificates and Polk County Home records there is evidence to support the burial of 76 folks and possibly 4 more from 1880 through 1901. The Cemetery west of Hwy 69 likely had 156 burials with another 18 possible. For some who’s place of death was listed as the County Farm, the place of burial on death certificates was sometimes blank. The "possible" category are those that were listed as “inmates” of the farm or asylum but no burial location were entered on an official record. Where prior reviews noted 99 being buried at the Polk County Cemetery a more accurate number is 232 with a possible 22 more equaling 254 total in the cemeteries.

No remains were found east of Hwy 69 when a study was commissioned in preparation of a highway widening project. The Polk County Archivist has only one photo of the farm. In articles over the years the Des Moines Register published in the neighborhood of 46 photos with two of the cemetery west of Hwy 69.

Gone and for the most part forgotten, many of the deceased Polk County Farm and Asylum residents have no common final resting place.

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