Stories about cemeteries with Halloween around the corner tend to lean toward fictional tales of ghosts haunting graveyards, myths and urban legends.
This, however, is not one of those stories.
It’s a story about West Des Moines’ cemeteries, Resthaven, Jordan and Huston, all of which are linked to the city’s ancestry and growth. Here’s what we learned after talking to a few local experts.
Drive down Ashworth Road to see the open green space that is Resthaven Cemetery located at 801 19th St. Enter through its large gates bearing the plaintive plaque “Resthaven 1931” and take a drive down memory lane on the roads that wind through its manicured grounds.
Resthaven, to generations of West Des Moines residents, is more than just a final resting place for loved ones and friends. It’s where neighbors walk their dogs, kids ride their bikes, teens learn to drive and families spend tranquil afternoons and evenings feeding the resident swans (Jack and Jill) at Resthaven’s scenic lake. It’s where history lives.
Live in town long enough and odds are that you will attend a visitation or a funeral, or both, at McLaren’s Funeral Home and Resthaven Cemetery more than once in your lifetime. On average, services for 300 people are held there each year. Still, after 82 years of burials, space for thousands more internments remain as only 30 of the cemetery’s 40 acres are developed and have yet to be fully utilized. Resthaven officials say that it will take another lifetime, if not more, to fill.
Like many institutions in West Des Moines, Resthaven’s roots are planted in Valley Junction. The cemetery was established in 1931 by W.H. Colvin on the site of the former Mountain Dairy Farm, and it became one of the first memorial parks in the United States to have its markers set at ground level in a park-like atmosphere.
According to cemetery officials, the Colvin estate sold the cemetery in 1953 to R. Harley Riggs and Carl Ripper. The centerpiece of the cemetery was the small lake located between two rolling hills. During the 1980s, the lake was expanded to include a second tier.
The lake is where the first pair of swans named Jack and Jill made their home in 1955, a gift from the widow of Fred Chander in memory of her husband. Over the years, several pairs of swans have lived at Resthaven and provided visitors countless hours of entertainment and photo opportunities.
“The swans are an attraction, and we’ve had contests for people to name the baby swans,” says Keith Rasmussen, former general manager of the funeral home and cemetery, who lives in the former owner’s house seated on the cemetery’s grounds.
Rasmussen says Resthaven has undergone several changes over the years. The Resthaven Chapel Mausoleum, which features casket crypts and cremation niches, was built in 1968, and an additional wing was built in the mid-1980s followed by glass front cremation niches. The Garden Mausoleum was built in 1975.
McLaren’s Funeral Chapel moved from Valley Junction to Resthaven Cemetery in 1978. Officials say every year, until 1993, a tree farm on the grounds provided many local residents with Christmas trees.
“Every now and then I get someone who knocks on my door and asks if we still sell trees,” says Rasmussen with a laugh.
Dan Fisher, location manager of McLaren’s Resthaven Chapel, says the cemetery is an important part of peoples’ lives.
“We have groups who have been walking here for years, and we’ve had family members who visit grave sites every day for years,” he says. “We hear stories all the time from people about it. There are a lot of memories here.”
In 2005, the cemetery added private estates with a mausoleum and the fountain estates one year later. The Veteran’s Memorial Wall was constructed in 2006 and honors both living and deceased veterans.
“It’s different from most memorial walls, and we still have room on the front and the entire backside to list names of veterans on it,” says Rasmussen.
Each Memorial Day, the avenue of flags honors those who have given their lives defending our country. During the holiday weekend, thousands of small American flags adorn the graves of veterans throughout the cemetery.
“We place more than 3,600 flags every Memorial Day. It takes us about two-and-one-half days to do so,” says Rasmussen. “It’s an impressive site.”
In 2011, Resthaven hosted the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Memorial for three days in September. The traveling, three-quarter-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., contained the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died or are missing in Vietnam. The event attracted more than 27,000 visitors.
“The turnout was amazing considering that it rained all three days,” Rasmussen says. “Every name on the wall was read by volunteers, day and night.”
Events like those only solidify the cemetery’s standing in the community, says Fisher, noting the cemetery allows its neighbor Sacred Heart Catholic School to use the empty adjoining green space for students to play there.
“There’s such a strong connection to the cemetery in West Des Moines because it’s a park-like atmosphere,” he says. “If you live in West Des Moines then you’ve been here. The history of McLaren’s is still strong today because it’s such a tight-knit community.”
Fisher says McLaren’s reputation as a compassionate businessman helped to endear Resthaven to residents.
“John’s services were beyond most peoples’ expectations. Everything was in place and people knew how good he was. He would tell families to let him do the worrying so they could try to relax. He was a kindhearted man,” says Fisher.
That enduring reputation, Fisher notes, serves Resthaven well.
“We know so many families that we serve,” he says. “They pick Resthaven because of its reputation and quality of service. They know we’ll take care of them, and they talk about the history of Resthaven and what it means to them to have their loved ones buried here.”
To better understand the historic significance of Jordan Cemetery, 2950 Fuller Road, it helps to know something about the man who founded it and for which it is named.
One of Iowa’s most influential pioneers, James Jordan settled in the area formerly known as Walnut Township in 1846. An astute businessman, he organized the State Bank of Des Moines and was instrumental in bringing the railroad to Des Moines, as well as platting Valley Junction and raising $70,000 to create a railroad here.
Jordan was also active in Iowa politics. He served on the Polk County Board of Supervisors and was elected to the Iowa Senate and the House of Representatives. During his tenure in the legislature, he led the drive to relocate the State Capitol from Iowa City to Des Moines.
In 1850, Jordan and his first wife, Melinda, began working on the Jordan House, which now serves as a museum located at 2001 Fuller Road. During the antebellum period, fugitive slaves were hidden in the house, as it was a designated stopover on the secret Underground Railroad.
After the death of his first wife in 1855, Jordan buried her on a plot of land owned by the family located west of their home. According to the city’s website, “The cemetery initially may have been planned as a family burial area, or for burials of members of the pioneer families who died on their way westward.”
Grave markers indicate that Melinda Jordan was one of the first burials there in 1855. Monuments in the cemetery contain the names of members of some of the city’s earliest and most prominent residents and some of the city’s first Mexican-American settlers are buried there, too.
James Jordan, who died in 1891 at the age of 76, two years before West Des Moines was incorporated, deeded the cemetery land to a cemetery association to administer.
“There is a lot of history there. That’s what’s so cool about it,” says Sally Ortgies, the city’s superintendent of parks. “People today still have connections to the original families buried there.”
City officials say in 1920 the cemetery association voted to ask Valley Junction to provide funds to help maintain Jordan Cemetery. It was annexed by the city in 1960, and five years later the city assumed its management.
Today, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department oversees its 10 acres and burials. Plots are available in a newly-created section on the west side of the grounds.
“We opened an addition in 2000, which created about 1,500 new spaces. We have about 20 to 30 burials there each year,” says Ortgies.
Often referred to as “The Middle of the Road Cemetery,” Huston Cemetery sits squarely in the middle of the road at 88th Street and Mills Civic Parkway. The small cemetery that includes graves dating back to 1847, was founded by James Brown Huston who moved to Iowa in 1849 and built and managed a stagecoach line, inn, tavern and the first post office in Dallas County on his farm.
“There are only 11 people known to be buried there, mostly family members,” says Ortgies. “They were also part of the Underground Railroad and reportedly their house had a trap door where they hid slaves escaping the South.”