OTTUMWA — You may not even know they’re there. Or you may see a few headstones peeking out of the tree line as you’re driving down the highway.
Pioneer cemeteries can be found all across the state of Iowa, but they’re falling into disrepair as the years go by. History enthusiasts like author Lee Ann Simmers-Dickey are trying to change that.
Speaking at the Reminisce Society program at the Ottumwa Public Library Tuesday, Dickey detailed the work that she and other interested people are doing to restore and document these historic cemeteries. A cemetery is considered pioneer if there hasn’t been a burial in it for 50 years or longer. That makes them a significant part of Iowa’s history, Dickey said.
“Each county [in Iowa] has at least 20 pioneer cemeteries that they’re trying to do upkeep on,” she said. “They’re always looking for volunteers because it can be hard, time-consuming work.”
Restoration of these cemeteries falls to the township trustees and county boards of supervisors. If it is one particular family buried there, then that responsibility falls to the family.
For anyone interested in beginning their own restoration projects, Dickey directs them to their county’s Pioneer Cemetery Commission, the auditor’s office and the board of supervisors. These officials can provide valuable information such as maps and records that have already been gathered.
In Ottumwa, those interested in cemetery restoration can also call Beverly Bethune at 641-799-6863.
“I really want younger people to get involved. I want to get the word out because this is something that’s really fallen by the wayside,” she said. “It takes a lot of people and a lot of work just to get stones cleaned and readable. There are more people doing genealogy and looking for this information.”
One of the tedious parts of cemetery restoration is working with headstones, Dickey says. Only certain products can be used so there is no additional damage to the stones. Learning which ones are safe is imperative before tackling a project, she said, and added that those who have been doing this for a while can share what works and what doesn’t.
The stone restoration itself is more complicated and more labor intensive. Again, most epoxies are not recommended because they change colors and do more harm than good. Some people have put headstone pieces in concrete or mortar, which is a huge problem, Dickey said.
“If that stone gets hit by a lawn mower, it will snap off right where the stone meats the mortar,” she said. “And some people have used metal or bolts to put them back together, but that just promotes rust.”
Dickey has written three books on area pioneer cemeteries, including two on the community of Buxton. What began with a love of family has turned into a passion for history.
“I started out doing my own family research, and now I do it for other people, too,” she said. “I’m very family-oriented, and I like history and the research involved.”
She is now working in the old part of Eddyville Cemetery, which has about 900 burials in that section alone. She’s already worked on 200 broken stones, many of which are made of sandstone, the most difficult type to repair. Shifting sand caused many of the headstones to sink straight down into the ground, where they can be damaged or covered with grass over time.
One of the most interesting parts of the restoration work Dickey is doing has been witching for graves. While some people don’t believe that it really works, Dickey says she has had great success with it.
To witch for graves, Dickey will take two L-shaped metal rods and place the handles in the shell of a plastic pen. This will give the rods free movement inside the plastic. Then, as she walks through the cemetery, the rods will actually cross when they pass over a grave, and she can mark the spot with flags.
“If it’s a male grave, they will cross at the feet [of the buried body]. If it’s a female, they will cross at the head,” she said. “And now, if it’s a cremation, they will spin.”
Dickey says that not everybody can witch for graves — in a group she took to a cemetery recently, she was the only one who could. Other times, everyone sees results. And not everyone will have the same results, either. For some people, the rods will cross at the head or feet. For others, they will cross or swing out, pointing in the right direction. It will vary from person to person, she said.