With Halloween fast approaching, our thoughts turn to tales of the supernatural. For this issue, Perry Living investigated the history of some local cemeteries.
While the reporter didn’t cross paths with any ghosts, she did discover that Perry’s cemeteries are still very much alive with the history of the people and events that made Perry the community it is today.
“Show me your cemetery and I will show you what kind of people you have.” — Ben Franklin
Violet Hill – Saint Patrick’s Cemetery
Violet Hill Cemetery at Eighth and Park Street is the most well known of Perry’s cemeteries. The first burial to take place in the cemetery was Mrs. C. M. Cross in 1878. At the time, the cemetery was simply known as City Cemetery. In 1905, Perry residents decided the cemetery should have a more fitting name.
“The Perry City Council asked residents of Perry to mail their suggestions into the mayor’s office, and the council would determine what the name was going to be,” says Jeanette Peddicord, treasurer of Perry’s Historical Preservation Commission and member of Violet Hill Memory Lane, a group dedicated to honoring the memories of some of Perry’s oldest long-term residents buried at Violet Hill.
The council voted on the suggestions the residents submitted, and the name Silent Mound won. The new name proved to be very unpopular with Perry residents because many felt it was too depressing.
“There were so many (residents) that did not like that for a name that they petitioned the council to change the name of the cemetery,” Peddicord says.
A petition started by the Federation of Women’s Clubs argued the cemetery should be renamed Violet Hill due to the beautiful violets that grew wild over the cemetery grounds and because, at that time, the main part of the cemetery was on a hill.
On June 4, 1905, the Perry City Council voted whether or not to change the name of the cemetery from Silent Mound to Violet Hill. The initial vote was a tie at 2 – 2. To break the tie, the mayor cast his vote in favor of changing the name to Violet Hill, ending several months of fierce disagreement among Perry residents.
Peddicord says Violet Hill became the focal point of local concern again between 1905 and 1913 during two small pox outbreaks that, at its height, sickened as many as 200 Perry residents. The Perry City Council made arrangements for the construction of a pest house, or quarantine house, to be built at Violet Hill.
Residents who contracted smallpox and who did not have family to care for them were moved to the pest house where they could be separated from the rest of the population. The Dallas County Board of Health paid for food and other necessities as well as supervised the medical care for the patients. A second pest house was constructed in 1913 after the first house burned down. The second pest house was torn down in 1919 after the threat of small pox had passed.
Peddicord says epidemics of small pox and influenza were fairly common during Perry’s early history. For years the Historical Preservation Commission had heard rumors of a mass grave at Violet Hill dating back to an influenza outbreak of 1915.
“There was always gossip in town that we had this mass grave,” Peddicord says. “You’d like to think that wouldn’t be true. However, two or three of the men who were former cemetery sextons said, yes, it was true.”
Peddicord explains that it was believed the mass grave contained victims of a Spanish Flu epidemic that impacted the Chinese immigrants working in the coal mines near Angus, Iowa, and on the nearby railroad during that time period.
To get answers, the Historical Preservation Commission took soil samples from the cemetery where they believed the mass grave was located and sent the samples to the University of Iowa. Preliminary results showed that the soil did not contain animal bones and the bone fragments that were discovered were not of caucasian ancestry.
Once the existence of the mass grave was confirmed, the Historic Preservation Commission made arrangements for a memorial. Currently, three shrubs and a pagoda mark the spot of the mass grave. An engraved plaque is also planned to honor the memory of the victims.
Violet Hill is also home to many of Perry’s more famous residents. A quick look at the interment list shows George Tomer, an American Major League baseball player, who played with the St. Louis Browns; George Soumas, the former mayor of Perry and decorated World War II veteran; Bill Bell, a well-known professional tuba player who played with John Philip Sousa’s band; Glen Whitehead, who fought in World War I and later served as a World War II war correspondent; Nora O’Malley, who founded St. Patrick’s Catholic School; and industry moguls Howard Osmondsen of Osmondsen Manufacturing and Henry and Lee Weise of Weise Industries.
When asked her favorite part about Violet Hill, Peddicord offered a quote from Ben Franklin, “Show me your cemetery, and I will show you what kind of people you have.”
Peddicord says she loves that particular quote because it captures her feelings about her work with Violet Hill so perfectly.
“I guess that’s what I like about the cemetery. The fact that it shows what really good people our community has had over the years,” Peddicord says. “When you think of their accomplishments during the time that they lived and what they contributed to the community so that it’s like it is now, I think it’s really neat that way.”
Prior to Violet Hill’s founding in 1878, three other cemeteries were used by Perry residents: Moore Cemetery, Mowrer Cemetery and Crocker Cemetery, later renamed Valley View Cemetery. Other cemeteries close to Perry include Bower Cemetery, Fairview Cemetery, Highview Memorial Gardens and Myers Cemetery. The following research is courtesy of local genealogist Katie Edmondson.
Moore Cemetery began as a family plot that later grew to become the community cemetery for the residents of Buffalo Grove, a settlement north of Perry. The first burial conducted in the cemetery was for Mrs. John Moore in 1852.
Mowrer Cemetery is located in Spring Valley Township south of Highway 144 and 141. A schoolhouse first stood on the land used for the cemetery. In 1865, one of the students, Mary Roberts, was badly burned at her home. Before she died, she asked to be buried in the schoolyard. Today, Mowrer Cemetery has approximately 85 headstones.
Bower Cemetery is located northeast of Perry in Greene County. The first recorded burial is Mary Wood in 1851.
Highview Memorial Gardens is located south of Perry in Spring Valley, Iowa. This cemetery is abandoned, but the headstones are still visible.
Meyers Cemetery is located south of Perry in Washington, Iowa. The first recorded burial was William Myers in 1863.
Crocker/Valley View Cemetery was founded in 1866, with the first burial conducted for Ulysess G. Huffman. The cemetery was renamed Valley View in 1942. A detailed description of the rededication ceremony can be found in a June 23,1950, article of the Perry Chief.
The following words are from Emma Thornburg during the 1942 Valley View Cemetery rededication. While the words she speaks are specific to Valley View Cemetery, the sentiment is universal.
“We are gathered today on this little plot of ground to decorate the graves of our loved ones and pay silent tribute to them for the inheritance they have left for us — their children. It was our fathers who first tilled the soil on this side of the Raccoon River. Here they broke the sod of the prairie and planted the crops. Homes were built. Trees were planted and soon the prairie was dotted with patches of green, marking the place where nestled among the trees was a home, an orchard, gardens. But on the virgin prairie sickness came — and death. The country doctor was sometimes far away and death was often the victor.”
— Mrs. Emma Thornburg, Valley View Cemetery dedication address 1942