Valerie Ogren of Jefferson blames her mother-in-law for her love of, and dedication to, cemeteries.
“She was secretary of the family reunion group, and she decided to print a book with the family births and deaths,” Ogren remembers. That was in 1970.
That small request has led to an interest in ancestry and local cemeteries. Eventually she was one of the charter members of the Greene County Genealogical Society, which was formed in 1978.
Since then, Ogren has been involved in numerous efforts to restore, record and identify the people buried in the cemeteries and the cemeteries themselves. She and other Greene County cemetery buffs have walked all of the cemeteries, recording the gravestones and matching up the cemetery deed dates and who is supposed to be buried in each plot.
“We walked them all in 1985 and again in 2010 and found a few graves and people we had missed before,” she says. And there were a number of people who had died in that span of time, so there were newer graves.
If anyone wants to know who’s who among the county’s deceased and where they are buried in Greene County, ask Ogren.
There’s the great circus entertainer and owner who landed in his deathbed in Greene County named Fayette Yankee Robinson, who took ill on the train between Bagley and Lohrville and was taken off the train in Jefferson by the conductor as no one thought he would make it to the next stop. He died in Jefferson and was buried in the Jefferson Cemetery in 1884. No one knew his name at the time he took sick, and he wasn’t able to tell them. However, amongst his belongings was an item that identified him as belonging to the Masons.
Members of the local Masonic Lodge helped take care of Robinson until he died and paid for his burial in the Jefferson Cemetery. At the time of his death, he was partnered with the Ringling Brothers.
Numerous years after his death, the Sells Brothers and the Ringling Brothers circus companies had a huge monument made for his grave. The marker bears the date 1890. As late as 1996, circus and tent performers coming through the area would visit the grave, leaving flowers and other memorabilia, Ogren says.
Oddly enough, the man whom the town of Rippey is named after is buried in the Jefferson Cemetery as well. His name is Robert Montgomery Rippey. He was born in 1828 and died in 1863.
The couple that donated a large amount of money to build the Mahanay Bell Tower in Jefferson, Floyd and Dora Mahanay, are also buried in the Jefferson Cemetery in a family mausoleum. Floyd died in 1947, and Dora died in the 1960s. Money from their estate still pays for scholarships for students from the high school in Jefferson, now called Greene County High School.
Ogren helped Mary Weaver and the Friends of Rippey group put on a cemetery walk at the Old Rippey Cemetery last June.
Walking through the Old Rippey Cemetery reading cemetery stones on a bright, breezy day in late summer could only be described as “peaceful and historic.”
“The Old Rippey Cemetery was deeded in 1856,” Weaver says.
It’s called the Old Rippey Cemetery because a new one was created when the residents who lived where Rippey was originally located picked up and moved the town to where the railroad was going through.
Rippey used to be a slightly northeast of where the cemetery still remains, surrounded by woods and farm fields.
“This area was emotionally tied to the Civil War,” Weaver says. “In fact, one of the first men from Greene County to die during the Civil war is buried in the Old Rippey Cemetery.”
The soldier, John Toliver, didn’t die on the battlefield but instead contracted a fatal case of the measles.
Sarah Heater, wife of Jacob Heater, who is buried at Old Rippey, was portrayed by Ogren during the walk as well. Heater was left a widow when her husband died of smallpox. Sarah Heater, a particularly strong woman, was able to maintain the farm and raise her children following her husband’s death.
The first location of Rippey had the Brand School, a private subscription school for adult men. It was run by Azor Mills. He and 30 of the young men who lived there signed on to fight in the Civil War.
Another “resident” grave is that of Dr. James Lovejoy.
“He had people stick out their tongues so he could diagnose what was wrong with them,” Weaver says.
She told a very sad story of a youngster, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, whose father was hauling grain home in the 1920s or 1930s. While he waited, the son ran into the house and asked his mother for a piece of the bread she was making. She shooed him away and told him it would ruin his dinner and to go back out and help his father before supper. The father began filling a bin with grain, and the boy climbed on top of the granary to help out. A storm was coming, and the boy was struck by lightning and killed. At the funeral, the mother was so distraught about his death and how she had shooed him away when he asked for a piece of bread, she tried to jump into the grave with him and had to be restrained.
During the cemetery tour, Nicole Friess Schilling read a piece about young people buried in the Old Rippey Cemetery, beginning by telling the people there, ‘Shhh, the children are sleeping.’ ”
Schilling talked about how the mortality rate among children was high, with nearly half dying before they were 5 years old.
Schilling ended her talk with, “Shhh, the children are sleeping.”
The June walk was the first one for the Friends of Rippey, and the group concentrated on the early business people, early pioneers and the children. Now the group is working on who to highlight for the next cemetery walk, Weaver says.
Joining the Old Rippey Cemetery on the pioneer list is Old Cedar in Cedar Township; Horan Cemetery in Kendrick Township; Gibson/Thompson Cemetery in Bristol Township; Headley Cemetery in Jackson Township; German (Patterson) Cemetery in Jackson Township; Taylor/Winkleman Cemetery and Truman Davis Cemetery in Jefferson Grant Township; Old Franklin Township Cemetery on the border of Franklin and Washington Townships; and Bower Cemetery, also known as the Angus Cemetery, in Washington Township.
Ogren talks with authority about the 28 cemeteries identified in Greene County. A number of them, such as the Jefferson Cemetery in Jefferson, are currently still being used for new burials. However, Greene County has at least 10 pioneer cemeteries — final resting spots that have not had more than 12 burials in the last 50 years.
The Old Rippey Cemetery holds three generations of Ogren’s family and is the oldest cemetery in the county.
The 10 pioneer cemeteries in Greene County may seem like a high number, but Ogren says it isn’t necessarily so.
“Every county has pioneer cemeteries,” she says. “The northeast parts of the state have more pioneer cemeteries than we do here because those areas were settled first.”
Ogren says it is her hope that more people come to appreciate the history of their ancestors and the pioneers who are buried in the Greene County cemeteries and all across the state of Iowa.
In 1990 she helped begin the Greene County Pioneer Cemetery Commission to advocate for restoration and protection of pioneer cemeteries. The majority of money for the cemetery upkeep comes from the townships.
A new sextant has been hired to care for the Washington Township cemeteries, which includes the Old Rippey Cemetery, and more work has been accomplished on fixing headstones in the last year.
While most of Greene County’s cemeteries are accessible, some of the old cemeteries are in the middle of corn and bean fields. An Iowa law requires that access be allowed to the cemeteries, but in some areas that’s just not practical, Ogren says.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t protected.
Not so long ago, an area farmer decided he needed more acres to plant. He knew there was a pioneer cemetery in the center of his cornfield, but this particular summer, he decided to clear the head stones and plow up the cemetery to gain a few more acres of cropland.
Word got out, and it wasn’t long until he was asked to put all the headstones back and no longer plow up the area. The headstones had been thrown down near a creek, and all of them had to be hauled back up to the cemetery because of the Iowa laws protecting pioneer cemeteries, Ogren says.
“I think it is important to take care of these pioneer cemeteries and not just because I have ancestors buried in the area. A lot of the pioneers who were buried may not have family living here, but they played an important role in settling our county,” Ogren says.