Tucked back on the western side of Beaverdale is the resting place for many of the early Freemasons in the Des Moines area.
The Masonic Cemetery, 1550 48th St., was incorporated in late 1919. The first burial was in May 1920 and was that of John Reed Yoder. Not much is known about Yoder except that he was born in 1859 and died in 1920.
Four Masonic lodges in Des Moines govern the cemetery, which is privately owned and operated. The cemetery is contiguous to Glendale Cemetery, owned and operated by the city of Des Moines and its taxpayers, but shares no affiliation.
Originally, the Masonic Cemetery was 15 acres, but it grew to 30 acres its first year. Today, it is about 65 acres with more than 10,000 burials. Burials still occur, mostly in the northern end of the cemetery.
Masonic Cemetery founded for Freemasons, their families
The cemetery was originally founded as a place for Masons and their wives and family to be buried. However, about 15 years ago, the cemetery was opened to the public for burials.
“We still have a lot of land for development,” says Johnny Audette, general manager of the cemetery and a member of West Gate-Adelphic Masonic Lodge 509.
Freemasonry is the oldest and largest men’s fraternity, and its members (2 million in the United States) seek to improve themselves through enlightenment and to make the world a better place through philanthropic work. Traditionally, Masons support public education, constitutional government, equality and freedom of religion and expression.
The square and compass are used to represent the tools of ancient stone masons and serve as a reminder for one to live a moral and virtuous life. Many of the stones of Masons buried in the cemetery contain these symbols.
In Iowa, the fraternal order was organized in 1844, though Freemasonry in the United States dates back to the early 17th century. Many of the United States’ founding fathers were members. Masons were part of the early settlers who came to the area in the 1840s. The first Masonic meeting in Iowa was held in 1840 in a Burlington carpenter’s shop. A Masonic lodge was formed there in November 1840. The Grand Lodge of Iowa received its charter in 1844. Today, there are an estimated 25,000 members in Iowa.
As Audette walks through the cemetery, he points out the names of some of the more well-known individuals and families in the Des Moines area. He often stops at random graves to read the person’s name and date of birth and death. He says he wonders about the dash — what the people did during their years of life and who they were.
Some of those individuals buried in the Masonic Cemetery whose histories are known include:
• Members of the Koch family, founders of Koch Brothers, an office supply store that began in 1889. The family each year plants two kernels of corn at the base of the large “Koch” monument. After the two stalks grow, the ears are harvested and set on the monument, Audette says.
• Paul Harvey Cunningham, who was a U.S. Congressman. He was born in 1890 and died in 1961. He was originally from Pennsylvania and went to college there and at the University of Michigan before he joined the U.S. Army during World War I. He was stationed at Camp Dodge and was first lieutenant of infantry. He moved to Des Moines after the war and worked as a lawyer while he served in the Iowa National Guard. Cunningham served from 1920 to 1923 in the Iowa House of Representatives and was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served nine terms from 1941 to 1959. He was one of the authors of the post-World War II GI Bill, a law that provided a range of benefits to WWII veterans.
• Edwin Thomas Meredith, the founder of Meredith Publishing Co. in Des Moines. He was born in 1876 and died in 1928. He unsuccessfully ran for several public offices but served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet from 1920 to 1921 and established an organization that would later become the 4-H Club. Meredith’s involvement in publishing began when he used $20 in gold pieces to buy a controlling interest in his grandfather’s newspaper “Farmer’s Tribune.” He made the paper successful and sold it for a profit, using that money to publish a journal designed to help the farming industry. The publication was “Successful Farming.” It started with 500 subscribers in 1902, and by 1914, had a circulation of more than 500,000. Meredith moved the publishing company in 1912 to downtown Des Moines. Among the publications he started were “Fruit, Garden and Home” in 1922, which later became “Better Homes and Gardens,” which still publishes today.
• George “Nick” Van Patten, who was a successful businessman. Van Patten, born in 1923, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He later founded Nationwide Builders with three partners. The company would become the largest retail home improvement company in the country in the 1950s. He became sole owner in 1953 and ran the company for 53 years. In the 1960s, his business established a wholesale division called Aluminum Distributors that still operates in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
• Carl Weeks and his wife, Edith, and other members of the Weeks family. Carl was a native Iowan and pioneer in the cosmetics industry — he founded Armand Cosmetics in 1915. He and Edith had a Tudor-style manor built between 1923 and 1928 at 4025 Tonawanda Drive in Des Moines and called it the Salisbury House. It has 42 rooms – originally 17 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms. It was modeled after the “King’s House” in Salisbury, England, which the couple saw during a visit in 1921. The “King’s House” was a 15th Century manor, where British royalty visited and stayed. Some of the home’s materials were imported including sections of the roof tile from Lord Nelson’s Trafalgar estate in England. It took five years to construct the house at a cost of $1.5 million. Another $1.5 million was spent on furnishings. The family moved into the house in 1926. New property tax laws and the Great Depression forced Weeks to deed the house to Drake University in 1934. The family was still allowed to live in the house, but they had to open it up to students who were studying fine arts. Weeks’ business saw a decline after World War II with competition from other cosmetics companies. He merged the company with another in 1950 and retired. Edith died in 1955; Carl followed in 1962. The Weeks’ stones are square with a round cap engraved with their names and dates of birth and death. “These are unique,” Audette says. “They’re the only ones we have out here.”
• Bob Rice, the longest-serving sheriff in the 150-year existence of Polk County. He was elected as sheriff in 1976 and served until he retired in 2000.
• George Wilson, who was governor of Iowa from 1939 to 1943.
Armed Forces memorial, children’s section planned for cemetery’s future
Hundreds of war veterans also are buried at the Masonic Cemetery, which is what inspired Audette and office manager Kathy Phelan to develop the idea for a memorial in their honor.
“You should always honor your veterans, and we have hundreds of them laid to rest out here with no memorial for them,” Audette says.
Construction on the Des Moines Masonic Cemetery Armed Forces Wall and Walk of Honor should begin in 2014. The cemetery is actively raising money for the memorial, which will list the names of men and women, both living and deceased, who have served in the six branches of the armed services. Engraved granite pavers will make up a walkway that will lead to the memorial. Pavers can be purchased through the cemetery office or by calling (515) 255-0153.
Audette also hopes to have a dedicated children’s section of the cemetery created in the future with the help of the Shriners, an organization to which he also belongs. He says the Shriners help many children receive medical assistance their families otherwise could not afford. Unfortunately, some of those children die. This area of the cemetery would be a place where families could receive a free burial for their child. It’s very early in the process, and concepts are just being put on paper, Audette says.
In the future, Audette says he also would like to see a walking path constructed around the perimeter of the cemetery. He says many people walk and ride their bicycles through the area.
Masonic Cemetery is permanent home to many unique monuments, features
The Masonic Cemetery has two unique features that separate it from other cemeteries in the Des Moines area.
First, the cemetery in 1976 received one of only 13 bronze pieces depicting President George Washington, who was a prominent Mason. The pieces were created to celebrate the country’s bicentennial. The mold was destroyed after the pieces were made.
There also is a large granite monument that depicts Kings Solomon and two Hirams. It is one of two that were created by the sculptor. The monument weighs 80 tons.
An interesting history, Audette says.
“Cemeteries, to me, are not all doom and gloom,” she says.