Several burial plots and early cemetery locations existed prior to the establishment of Webster City’s Graceland Cemetery.
The first recorded burial site in Webster City was located at the F.A. Huddleston farm, which is now near the intersection of Highway 17 and Edgewood Drive. Among the bodies buried there were members of the Brewer family, early founders of Webster City.
As the community grew, a plot of ground at the northwest corner of Webster City was used for burials on land owned by Judge J.D. Maxwell. It is located at the west end of James Street.
According to the book, “Webster City, Past and Present,” by Martin E. Nass, the first cemetery was located across the Boone River on what was called North Hill, near where the country club is now located, on land owned by W.C. Willson. At the time, it was called the North Cemetery. The river’s high water made crossing it difficult at times, so the cemetery was moved to the Judge Maxwell farm in the northwest part of town.
This cemetery was moved from the Maxwell farm to five acres of land that was purchased from Jacob M. Funk in 1865. This is the area that is now the oldest part of Graceland Cemetery, in the extreme east portion. A cemetery association was formed at that time to make improvements to the cemetery.
In 1871, the Catholic Church was built on high ground across from what is now the Bank Street Bridge. A small burial ground adjoined the church on the north side of Dubuque Street and west of Bluff Street. In 1882 it was decided that more space was needed, so the bodies from the church cemetery were moved to what was called the Calvary Cemetery, located in the extreme southwest corner of the current location. The Catholic Church continued use of the Bluff Street location until late 1899 when the present church was built on Des Moines Street.
The Ladies Cemetery Association, formed in 1881, planted trees and shrubs and laid out the roads in the new cemetery location. The City of Webster City took control of the cemetery in 1883. Claus Brandrup was appointed sexton and held the office for 35 years.
In 1885, a strip of land 15 feet wide was purchased in the oldest part of the cemetery for burial of war veterans. The Civil War dead were moved from the North Cemetery to this area, called the Hope Cemetery.
In 1919, the currently-named Graceland Cemetery was created by an extensive addition to the west of the oldest part of the cemetery. It was planted by a landscape architect from Iowa State College in Ames.
In 1934, the Brewer family, founders of Newcastle — as Webster City was once named — was moved to the site of their original cabin on the bank of Brewer Creek. This family plot is in the Wilson Brewer Park and is known as “Trail’s End.”
Craig Biggs, who has been cemetery sexton for 16 years, says there are 13,500 graves, but some from the early 1800s are unmarked.
“There is so much history in that cemetery with the Civil War veterans, the drummer boy and the community founders buried there,” says Bob Erickson, funeral director and owner of Foster Funeral and Cremation Center.
Webster City founders and notables buried in Graceland Cemetery include Jackson Groves, who arrived in Webster City in 1856 and built the cabin attached to the Brewer cabin at the Wilson Brewer Park; a Civil War drummer boy at the battle of Shiloh, Charles Olmstead, who came to Webster City in 1867; S.B. Rosenkrans, Webster City pioneer who, in 1884, while drilling a well, found a flowing mineral spring on his property on the bluff at the east end of the Bank Street bridge and developed a park in the area which opened in 1885; Kendall Young, who in 1896 left his estate, valued at $150,000, to the city for the express purpose of building a free library; and MacKinlay Kantor, the Webster City native who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956 for his 1955 novel, Andersonville.
Jacob M. Funk, from whom the first portion of Graceland Cemetery land was purchased in 1865, and who later gave nearby land to the city on which the first hospital was built, is laid to rest there.
James Richardson, a Ringling Brothers circus performer who went by the professional name of Monsieur Dialo, was killed in a gunfight while the circus was in town in 1888, also rests in peace in Graceland Cemetery.
There are also 135 veterans from the Civil War buried there, as are 276 World War I veterans and 652 World War II veterans. Several veterans from other wars and peacetime service interred there as well.
Erickson and his staff maintain the section of the cemetery for the burial of the very young, Foster’s Addition for Babies, established by the business’ founder, Arch Foster.
“In the early 1930s, there was an epidemic among kids, and many of them died. Mr. Foster started the baby cemetery, so babies could be buried without cost to the parents. There are about 300 children buried there. It was surprising how many parents lost one, two or three children,” Erickson says.
Throughout the cemetery, there are varied types of headstones and footstones, created from marble, granite and even metal. Some are spectacular monuments, while others are understated markers.
“Some of those tombstones are works of art,” says Kent Harfst, assistant city manager/recreation and public grounds director.
Harfst says some of the massive older monuments, like those on the southeast side of the cemetery overlooking Brewer Creek, were probably made on the East Coast or in Minnesota, transported to Webster City by train, and then delivered to cemetery by horse and wagon.
Most cemetery headstones face east, Harfst says, so that the dead are buried facing the rising sun, a tradition based on some religious beliefs. He also noted that married couples are traditionally buried side by side, with the husband on the south side and the wife on the north, also for religious purposes.
Behind the scenes
Walking through Graceland, visitors may not be aware that behind this tranquil setting there is plenty of activity going on with maintenance of the property, visitors paying respects or conducting genealogical searches and even visits from wildlife.
Maintaining the cemetery property is an occupation that keeps Biggs busy. He handles all maintenance of vehicles and equipment, payroll, meets with families and manages the office. He works closely with Tim Jondal, public grounds technician. There is also a local Cemetery Advisor Committee that meets annually to discuss operations.
“One thing I enjoy about my job is meeting the public,” Biggs says. “People come from all 50 states to do genealogy searches”
Keeping the grounds impeccably groomed means ongoing mowing and trimming in the spring and summer months.
“It takes 40 hours to mow and twice as long to trim; then it’s time to start again,” says Harfst.
Preparing a grave for burial in the winter requires different arrangements than in temperate months. Special equipment — a grave thawer with a metal hood that fits over the grave — is used to warm the ground for digging.
“We have to have at least 18 inches of cover; I have it at least two feet deep,” Biggs explains.
Workers dig the graves five feet deep, which gives two feet of cover, he says.
According to Harfst, a traditional space is five by 10 feet; a cremation space is a bit smaller at five by five feet.
There has been an increase in cremation in recent years.
“Cemeteries are going through a transition right now. More people are choosing cremation from an economic standpoint,” says Harfst. “In the U.S., about a fourth of burials are cremation; here in Webster City, about one-third of our burials are cremations now.”
Biggs says the graves for cremation are smaller and do save some space, but there is plenty of room in Graceland for many years to come.
“It slows down the need for additional land, but we’re OK for at least 100 years, based on our projections,” says Harfst.
Erickson suggests that the movement toward cremation is also in part to changing religious views and an ever-changing mobile society.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of family members being so far away and not being able to get to the funeral. It’s really difficult for some families to get together, and for some, it’s a travel expense. Cremation can buy them more time to make funeral plans,” he says.
Graceland Cemetery is full of history, memories and nature, providing a source of comfort and solace for years to come.