It seems most towns have them — those legends, myths or spooky stories of strange happenings or creepy tales handed down from generation to generation. Some are based in fact, like unsolved crimes, while others seem mostly fantastical in their details. Waukee is no stranger to such tales, and those who have lived here a long time share stories of things they’ve heard or experienced that have gone bump in the night. This Halloween, curl up under a blanket and read on to learn more about eerie events right here in Waukee.
Waukee Cemetery has been in existence since the middle of the 19th century, with graves dating back to the 1850s. Before it was officially organized as a cemetery, it was a burial spot, and it’s home to Civil War veterans as well as the recently departed. The cemetery is currently about 17 acres and has more than 2,000 graves. There are still 30 or more burials there per year.
Wayne Erdman, the clerk for Walnut Township, which owns the cemetery, says it was formally organized as a cemetery in 1893. He says there are records dating back to that time, and the cemetery was designed after a courtyard in Wales. It’s different than other cemeteries in its design, with walking trails and carriage paths in the original map. Erdman says the cemetery had some issues with drainage, so the townspeople of Waukee organized a drive asking for donations to put in drainage tile in the early 1900s.
“I have the list of people who gave the donations and the amounts, and it totaled $14.96 to do that,” he says. “That drainage tile was put in for that amount of money. I imagine there was a lot of donations of labor and community effort to get that put in, and that’s interesting that we still have those records.”
The cemetery is home to many multi-generational families who were some of Waukee’s first settlers.
“My wife’s family included some early settlers from west of town, and her grandfather on her mother’s side worked in the coal mines out here,” Erdman says. “We also have a son buried out there, which makes fives generations of her family that are buried out there.”
When asked about spooky tales or hauntings at the cemetery, Erdman is quickly dismissive.
“I don’t believe in such things, so I wouldn’t know about that,” he says.
But Robin Spear, who grew up in town, says they never went close to the cemetery in darkness because the rumor was that lights shone up from the gravestones at night.
There’s another cemetery close to Waukee that’s not even an organized cemetery anymore, but merely an overgrown collection of a few graves off Highway 6. Lori Pielak writes about it in her book “Ghosts of Dallas County.”
Pielak says she investigated the gravesites and found the average age of the deceased was only 22 — with several tiny graves for babies and children. Legend surrounding the burial site is that the graves are those of travelers going west on the Mormon Trail. The group was hit with some sort of sickness and death befell them.
According to Pielak, it is said that a young woman became distraught when her infant daughter died.
“How she killed herself is still up for debate among the locals who remember growing up hearing the story,” Pielak writes. “Some believe she died of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. Others say she flung herself in the Raccoon River and drowned. Some think she stabbed herself in the heart, piercing herself in the place where her loss was felt the most.”
Though the cemetery is now all but forgotten, it is said that each year on a few summer’s nights a woman’s cry can be heard. Locals believe it is the young woman sobbing over the loss of her baby.
A haunted school
There are many who grew up in Waukee when the original 1917 Waukee school — now the Vince Meyer Learning Center — was still in service. They believe it could be haunted due to reports of strange happenings in the bathrooms in the old section of the building that has since been torn down. People claim to have heard doors opening and closing, even though no one is there, and images of a ghostly figure, perhaps a janitor. Spear says she went to the school, and so did her kids, and they’ve all experienced it.
“I was always afraid of going to the bathroom as a kid, and my oldest son started hearing about the same thing when he started going there,” she says. “My youngest brought it up to me that he heard the school was haunted. He was the last grade to go through that school before they closed it, and he was 11. I never told him that, and my other son never told him that. It was creepy.”
Spear says she might get labeled crazy, but she’s open-minded and believes there could be something to the legends. She also grew up in a house nearby that was brought to Waukee from the Cottage Grove area of Des Moines. The house also had some strange occurrences.
“I’d hear the garage door open and my dad come in and walk across the kitchen floor in his big cowboy boots, but I’d go upstairs and no one would be there,” she says. “My dad never believed any of this, but then he said the same thing happened to him.”
Spear says they moved into the house when she was a young child, and she remembers seeing a big red stain on the pink carpet in her bedroom — something no one else ever saw. She wonders if someone was murdered in the house and his or her spirit never left.
“My mom still lives there, and she doesn’t believe any of this,” she says. “But my kids are still scared to go down to the basement.”
Another legend written about in “Ghosts of Dallas County” is that of Susie Lawson and the orphan train. In the early 1900s, the railroad came to Waukee, and the people believed it would provide opportunities for the struggling farm town.
The railroad was used to bring orphans from places like the East Coast through the country, stopping where people could adopt the children as their own. Though the premise was noble, sadly there were tales of children who were mistreated — one of them a young girl named Susie Lawson.
She was adopted as a young teenager by a local man, and it wasn’t much longer before he took advantage of her and she ended up pregnant. Pielak says young Susie lost her mind — killing him before taking her own life by throwing herself in front of one of those fateful trains.
“It is now said, as darkness falls upon the sleepy little town of Waukee, you can sometimes hear the screaming of a woman and the wailing of a train,” Pielak writes. “Not just any train — the orphan train.”
Waukee is also home to a real-life unsolved mystery. Emma Lewis was found dead in her home on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1976. The 80-year-old Lewis had died from blows suffered during a severe beating. The Des Moines Tribune reported on the story, informing readers that Lewis was the widow of a coal miner, legally blind and a sweet lady.
Emma’s body was found by a close friend, Phyllis Hinkson, 57, of Waukee, lying face-up on the floor near the bathroom shortly after 9 p.m.
Police, Dallas County sheriff’s officers and Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) agents have been baffled by the slaying. They said they have no suspects. No weapon was found. There were no signs of forcible entry. The only indication of a motive was Emma’s still-missing purse, the Tribune reported.
“I talked with the police at the beginning of the year, and I asked them about it,” says Terry Snyder, who is active in the Waukee Area Historical Society. “You don’t want to stir up anything, but Chief Philips said it was still unsolved, and they did send in evidence to see if there was DNA to see if they could get a match on it.”
When the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) established a Cold Case Unit in 2009, Emma Lewis’ murder was one of approximately 150 cases listed on the Cold Case Unit’s new website as those the DCI hoped to solve using latest advancements in DNA technology.
Although the Cold Case Unit closed down in December 2011 due to lack of funding, the DCI continues to investigate cases where they were making progress. They also follow up on any new leads provided in these cases.