A walk through Woodland Cemetery is a step through the history of the city of Des Moines.
With more than 80,000 graves covering 69 acres, most of the city’s founding fathers are buried in the cemetery. There are recognizable names like Fleur, Hubbell, Perkins, Sherman, Weitz, Merrill, Younker and Savery and many more. Many of the more prominent ones have schools, streets or other buildings named after them.
Farmers give land to create new city cemetery
The cemetery was founded in 1848 to replace Fort Des Moines Cemetery. Five farmers gave the first 5.5 acres for the cemetery. While lots were purchased in November of 1849, the first burial didn’t take place until 1850 and was that of a 1-year-old boy, Thomas Casady, the son of Phineas Casady, who was a lawyer, judge and U.S. senator. Des Moines was established in 1851. City officials took ownership of the cemetery in 1857. Another 36.5 acres were purchased in 1864.
City officials built a formal entrance and arch in 1889 that connected to the superintendent’s residence and a cemetery chapel. Sometime in the early 1920s, the structures were torn down. Granite columns with the word “Woodland” carved into the top were constructed at the entrance in 1915. They remain today. In 2012, a new arch was constructed at the entrance. The effort was led by Gerald LaBlanc, a local historian who has advocated through the years for maintenance and restoration of veterans’ monuments. It was dedicated in his honor this summer.
Within Woodland are St. Ambrose Cemetery, which was relocated from the south side of Des Moines in 1866, and the Emmanuel Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1871. There also is an Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery.
The cemetery is nearly full — there are only a couple of burials a year, but those are for older families who already own lots.
Woodland Cemetery has as many stories as it does graves
“The stories told by the monuments and headstones combine to form the history of the city as it has passed through civil and world wars, epidemics and natural disasters as well as the normal course of birth, life and death,” writes Marlene Anderson, cemetery supervisor for the city. “Passing through the narrow drives of the cemetery, you see stone etchings of the names of many citizens from our past who helped build Des Moines and are now a part of everyday life in our city’s landscape.”
Archie Cook, a history teacher at North High School in Des Moines, has spent many hours researching the cemetery’s history and the lives of those buried there. Cook now gives walking history tours of the cemetery. In addition to his own research, much of what he has learned came from LaBlanc.
Cook’s tour includes almost 30 stops, where he details the lives of the individuals buried there. Here are some of the stories:
The Hubbell family started in Des Moines with F.M. Hubbell. He came to Des Moines as a 15-year-old. His first job was as a land speculator. Cook says Hubbell was a very determined young man who invested his money wisely and built a fortune. Hubbell’s daughter married a Count from Switzerland. Her marriage made national news and was published in the New York Times in 1899. Hubbell had a mausoleum constructed on the eastern edge of the cemetery. The family’s is different from other above-ground mausoleums — there are 32 mausoleums in the cemetery — in that there is an elevator that lowers the casket underground, which is where all of the family members have been laid to rest. The Hubbell family is best known for starting Equitable of Iowa, an insurance holding company. The family still resides in Des Moines.
Two Medal of Honor recipients, one of whom was Emory Pike, are buried at Woodland. Pike died from wounds he received during World War I. He’s one of 40-some soldiers buried in the World War I Gold Star Memorial section of the cemetery. The men were originally buried in France, but their bodies were exhumed and returned home for burial by their families.
Benjamin Franklin Allen was Iowa’s first millionaire. He built Terrace Hill, the current governor’s mansion. Allen fell onto hard times before his death and lost all of his money. As a result, he couldn’t purchase a lot in Woodland Cemetery. Oliver Perkins, another wealthy businessman, purchased a lot for Allen and his family. Perkins, who also is buried in the cemetery, has the second tallest monument in Iowa.
“(Allen) doesn’t even own this piece of land he and his wife are buried on,” Cook says. “The first millionaire in Iowa is buried under a $1 baby marker.”
From 1886 to 1905, about 45 children who had been left as orphans at Orchard Place Des Moines Children’s Home, also called Des Moines’ Home for Friendless Children, were buried in Woodland Cemetery in a mass grave. Most of the bodies were buried in peach and apple crates stacked on top of each other. Some children had names pinned to them when they were left on the porch of the orphanage, while others were buried as “unknown.”
At least 132 Civil War veterans are buried in the cemetery. The names on some of the stones have worn away with time, and the graves’ care had been the responsibility of the families, which means they are lost to historians because there are no records for some of the graves, LaBlanc previously told this magazine.
There are two (some accounts say three) Confederate graves at Woodland.
Five Civil War generals are buried in the cemetery, which LaBlanc has said “no other cemetery can match.” They are Marcellus Crocker, whom Crocker Street is named after; Nathaniel Baker; Samuel Merrill; Josiah Given; and James Tuttle. Crocker died of tuberculosis at the end of the Civil War. In 1875, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, he visited Des Moines. His first stop was Crocker’s grave in Woodland, where he said: “Gen. Crocker was fit to command an independent army.” Those words were engraved on a stone in the cemetery, which Cook and others think is located across from Crocker’s grave. However, time has worn away any engravings on the stone.
Many families purchased larger lots and left open spaces where they could picnic among their deceased relatives. Some had benches constructed, and others ensured posts were installed, so family members could tie up their horse-drawn buggies.
About 450 babies were buried in an area on the southern edge of the cemetery in an area known as “Baby Hill.” Only a few had stones, but most graves were unmarked and only identified by a numerical metal square that was drilled down into the ground. LaBlanc has worked diligently in recent years to have a monument erected near the site, as well as money raised to begin identifying each of the unmarked graves.
Block 13 is referred to a Pauper’s Field. There are approximately 5,000 unmarked graves, as the families of those buried there could not afford grave markers. Burials in this section ended in 1924 for fear of digging up unknown graves.
The City Receiving Vault was built in the early 1880s and was used as a holding place for bodies during the winter months when the ground was too frozen for graves to be dug.
A monument for Typographical Union No. 118 that dates to 1907 is for 14 typesetters who were poisoned by the lead in the ink they used and accidentally ingested while eating lunch.
Iowa Supreme Court Justice Chester Cicero Cole, who died in 1913 at age 89, is buried under a small marker in Block 17. He wrote the opinion to the court’s ruling in 1868 that Susan Clark, a black girl in Muscatine, didn’t have to go to the city’s school for black children and had equal rights to go to her neighborhood school. “All the youths are equal before the law,” he wrote.
Vandals, time destroy monuments, force mausoleums to be closed
Woodland Cemetery has been the victim of robbery and vandalism throughout the years.
Markers have been stolen, as was the case of a log cabin monument made for a small child who enjoyed playing with Lincoln Logs. Others markers have been broken off.
While time and weather conditions also are to blame, one of the most vile acts of vandalism occurred in 1991 when three middle school students broke into the Sherman mausoleum and took the skull of Sara Sherman, the wife of Hoyt Sherman. She had died in 1887. The skull was later found in the alley behind an east-side motel and later returned to its rightful resting place. After that, the Sherman mausoleum was stoned shut to prevent further theft and vandalism.
Casady’s mausoleum located next to the city receiving vault has been broken into within the past couple of years, though no remains were disturbed.
One of the most unique resting places is that of Jefferson Scott Polk and his wife, Julia. On one side of their monuments is a stone with space for a candle; on the other side is the monument for three of their children who preceded them in death. The monument is shaped like a bed with three pillows. Each child’s name was engraved above one of the pillows.
“I don’t know of a more unusual stone,” Cook says.