Riding a lawn mower gives a person time to think, especially when one is mowing acres upon acres of green grass at the Clear Lake Municipal Cemetery.
Dennis Ouverson spent a good share of his 39-year career with the city of Clear Lake here, caring for the final resting place of more than 5,000 men, women, and sadly, infants and children.
“There’s only so much you can think about when you’re mowing, so you drive by a stone, see a name, and you start to wonder,” The stones usually only record when a person was born and when he or she died, but gives little clue to the life lived in whatever amount of intervening time between those two dates of birth and death.
Over the years, a few of the stones caught his attention, not necessarily because they were costly or grand, but because of the clues left behind to the life recalled upon the granite.
Ouverson has often wondered about the autumn of 1918 here in Clear Lake. The community must have been rocked that month when, not one, but two of their fighting men were lost across the Atlantic on the battlefields of World War I.
“Everyone forgets about that war, but there were two guys who died, almost on the same day, and they are buried just a little ways away from each other here,” Ouverson explains.
He has to wonder how the folks of Clear Lake reacted when the news came that one soldier had paid the ultimate price of freedom, and then how the community must have been shocked again when another life was lost just a few days later.
The stones recall only the service, not where the men were born, or who their families might have been. All that is known is that George C. Sheppleman, a member of 88th Division, died in service at Heringcourt, France, on Oct. 1, 1918. He was 30 years old.
A few days later, on Oct. 4, 1918, Harry A. Kimball, a member of the 91st Division, was killed in action in Meause, Argonne, France. He was 22 years old.
For years, Ouverson noticed that these World War I graves were largely neglected.
“I thought, by golly, these guys deserve better than that,” Ouverson recalls.
He put a pot of flowers on one of the graves, and soon noticed that someone else took up the tradition and decorates at least one of the graves with a few colorful blooms each year.
“That had to be something for a town this size to lose two boys so close together,” Ouverson says wistfully.
The cemetery is final resting place, also, to countless World War II veterans, both those who died in battle and those who returned to lead longer, fuller lives. There are veterans, also of the Civil War, including at least one Confederate soldier. Champe W. Pattie lived from 1838 until 1911 and served in the Virginia Infantry for the Confederate States of America. For several years, a Confederate Flag was placed on his grave on Memorial Day, but it’s not certain if that practice still continues.
Also at rest here is John H. Wrisberg III, Clear Lake’s only soldier to have lost his life in Vietnam. He was 20 years old when he was killed Jan. 16, 1968.
While America is known for remembering and honoring her dead, Ouverson has also been particularly impressed with the Canadians in this department. Born in New Sharon in 1875, Lew F. Kirby served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1918. To this day, the Canadian Mounties personally care for the upkeep of the grave and, when the stone became in disrepair, saw to it that it was restored with dignity, sporting the Canadian Maple Leaf. Even the base, which on most graves is concrete, is done in granite.
“They take care of that base forever,” Ouverson says.
While veterans have more than their share of stories to tell, there are other stories to tell here, as well. For years, Ouverson observed the unmarked grave of a noted Clear Lake inventor. Carl S. Bates, as his stone states, was a “designer and constructor of flying machines.”
“He built this glider and flew it along the lakeshore back in 1901, 1902, but the Smithsonian Institute would only recognize motorized flight,” Ouverson explains. He was credited with building the first glider in Iowa in 1898.
While Bates may not have received the recognition he deserved as an aviation pioneer, he did have his hand in numerous other inventions — from the microwave oven, to the RCA tube TV, to a wheelchair that rocked, according to Ouverson.
Saddened by the unmarked grave, Ouverson worked with the Mason City Chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, funding a stone to memorialize the unique role of this North Iowa man in aviation history.
These are but a few of the stories waiting to be discovered in a quiet walk through these acres of green.
“If only a cemetery could talk,” Ouverson says, looking out at the vast expanse of graves.
In clues upon aging stones, perhaps they do.