Fictional stories of ghosts haunting graveyards and other myths and urban legends are common this time of year with Halloween around the corner.
This, however, is not one of them.
This story is about the history of two Urbandale cemeteries, both of which help illustrate the ancestry and growth of Urbandale, while debunking a few myths along the way.
Urbandale Living magazine spoke with local residents about the history of Merle Hay Funeral Home and Chapel Hill Gardens and McDivitt Grove Cemetery. Here’s what we learned.
Honoring Merle Hay
Drive slowly through the grounds at Chapel Hill Gardens, where Merle Hay Funeral Home is located at 4400 Merle Hay Road, and you will notice a number of landmarks including the large set of stone praying hands, an oversized cement chair and various markers commemorating military veterans.
Yet the landmark that stands out the most and draws the attention of visitors is the large boulder honoring Merle Hay.
One of the most recognized names in Urbandale and throughout the metro is Merle Hay, for which one of the state’s largest shopping malls and city streets is named. Hay was the first Iowa serviceman and is considered by historians to be one of the first Americans to die in World War I on Nov. 3, 1917, the same year that Urbandale was incorporated.
Hay was a member of Company F, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, which was also known as “The Big Red One.” He fought in the trenches in Lorraine, France. He was killed by German soldiers who outnumbered their American counterparts and caught them by surprise as they emerged from their shelters to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat at night.
Allegedly, another American soldier saw Hay battling two German soldiers with a bayonet. When American reinforcements arrived, they found Hay face down in the mud with a .45 caliber pistol in his hand.
Hay, along with other American soldiers killed in the attack, was buried on the scene with a monument, which was later destroyed by Germans in 1940. Hay was re-interred in 1921 near his home in Glidden, and the cemetery was later renamed in his honor.
Shortly after Hay’s death, the highway that runs north and south through Urbandale and other parts of the metro to Camp Dodge was renamed Merle Hay Road. A memorial boulder was placed along the road in 1923, and about five years ago a group of local veterans asked the owners of Chapel Hill Gardens if they could relocate the boulder on the grounds of the cemetery.
“We get asked all the time, ‘Where is Merle Hay buried?’ says Blair Overton, owner of Merle Hay Funeral Home and Chapel Hill Gardens, where he also serves as a funeral director. “People don’t realize that he’s buried in Glidden, but we honor him here.”
Overton says after the city decided to rezone a portion of Merle Hay Road a few years ago where the boulder sat across the street, a group of veterans requested to move it to the cemetery for long-term safekeeping.
“We thought it was a great idea to move it here,” he says. “It gets noticed all the time when people are here for visitations and funerals. Lots of people don’t know the history of Merle Hay, so from that standpoint we’re happy to help inform people about him.”
History abounds at Chapel Hill Gardens
Tracie Hicks, the funeral home’s business manager for 25 years, is versed in the history of the cemetery, which occupies 30 acres, 25 of which are developed, along Merle Hay Road.
She says the first burial there, for a local resident named Johnston Manbek, was held on Jan. 7, 1932.
“Some people might be surprised by the age of the cemetery,” she says. “Most people think of it dating back to when the funeral home, chapel and mausoleum were built in the early 1970s.”
The chapel, complete with ornamental stained glass windows, seats “a lot of people” and “seems like a well kept secret” according to its owner.
“It’s a beautiful, well-kept chapel,” says Overton.
Overton and his business partners purchased the cemetery and funeral home in 2007 along with a handful of others in the metro from its previous owners based in New Orleans. He is a fourth generation Iowa funeral home director.
“We wanted it to have local ownership, and we’ve been learning a lot about the community since having purchased it,” he says.
Hicks says the funeral home and cemetery have hosted services and burials of Iowans who have made headlines over the years. She says James McCarthy, who was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, is buried there, as is Tim Burnett, the late manager of the Drake Diner who was killed on Nov. 29, 1992, at the Des Moines restaurant.
“I remember that there were big crowds for both of those funerals,” she says.
To date, about 7,800 people have been buried at Chapel Hill Gardens since its first burial in 1932. Its owners say, contrary to popular belief, the cemetery is not in danger of filling up before their lifetime.
“Everyone thinks we’re running out of cemetery space, but we’re not,” says Overton. “The cemetery can hold more than 15,000, so we’re a little over half full — and that took 80 years.
“People also don’t realize that in urban areas, like Boston where I went to school, cemeteries are green sanctuaries where you can find trees and grass and see birds and other animals. If you drive along Merle Hay Road in front of the cemetery, all you see is grass.”
Overton also says the one thing you won’t see at his cemetery are ghosts. To dispel such myths, he often refers to something his father said about the subject.
“Dad used to say, ‘If someone had the mind to haunt someone, it probably wouldn’t be the funeral director or the undertaker who took care of them,’ ” says Overton. “Like Dad used to tell people, ‘We don’t have any specters here.’ ”
Deep as the roots run at Chapel Hill Gardens, they run deeper at McDivitt Grove Cemetery, 7001 Meredith Drive, which is now operated by the City of Urbandale.
The cemetery is named after William McDivitt, a pioneer settler who purchased the land in 1853 where the cemetery is located. When McDivitt’s son (John) died in 1865, he set aside a portion of his farmland for the cemetery. Three years later, McDivitt buried his wife (Sarah) there, too.
According to the city’s website, a schoolhouse was built on the site in 1866, and the ground was deeded for cemetery purposes in 1870. Five years later, the school was moved, and a church (which stood from 1875 to 1950) was built on what is now the western portion of the cemetery.
For decades, the Webster Township Trustees maintained the cemetery. The City of Urbandale assumed its management in 1998. A permanent record of all interments at the non-perpetual care cemetery is maintained at the Urbandale Parks and Recreation office. Records date back to burials in the 1860s, but many of the earlier records are incomplete.
“It’s the first cemetery in town, in the days when it was Webster Township, before it became Urbandale,” says Virginia Gee, long-time board member and volunteer for the Urbandale Historical Society. “Some of the town’s first settlers are buried there; names like Olmsted, McDivitt and Stuart. There are also Civil War soldiers buried there.”
Gee says there are records of at least 15 Olmsted family members who are buried at McDivitt Grove Cemetery.
Some of the stone monuments are tall and slender with names, dates and one-line epitaphs such as “gone but not forgotten” and “at rest,” while others are adorned by carvings of angels, harps, Bibles, anchors and clasped hands. Others are marked only by limestone rock, and some are so worn by time and weather that names and dates are barely legible.
“My understanding is that they opened up the section west of the drive where the church was located because people wanted to be buried in their hometown cemetery,” says Gee, noting that the last plot there was sold in 2002. “These days, people can buy columbariums (a vault with niches for urns) from the city to be buried there.”
The entrance of the cemetery — about three acres in size and located at 70th Street and Meredith Drive — is marked by a metal iron sign and set of gates. Its gravel driveways separate the cemetery into three sections.
Gee says the cemetery is an important part of Urbandale’s history.
“It’s significant because it provides a visual reminder of the early days of Webster Township long before Urbandale became a community,” she says. “Many of the names found there are important to the area. They give visitors a greater appreciation of the importance of the city’s early growth and development. People are encouraged to visit and to be respectful of the markers and to learn about who lived here.”