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Mystery of the missing graveyard

Posted October 19, 2020 in Web Exclusives

How is it that one can lose a cemetery … even a very small cemetery, especially if it happens to be right in the middle of a country road? 

Actually, this unique graveyard lies almost like an island in the center of a roundabout in Iowa’s rural Dallas County. Or at least that’s where I last saw it a year or so ago! However, when my husband and I drove out to pay that peaceful little plot of land a visit recently, what we came to see was nowhere to be found on that sunny summer afternoon!

 No road encircled a grassy island and not one of the 19 tombstones which should have been dotting the landscape was visible then, nor did we see an iron or chain link fence marking the perimeter of the tiny 19th century cemetery! It was almost as though Mr. J. B. Huston took his entire family graveyard with him when he departed, although James Huston happens to be buried there, too, along with his wife Nancy and six of their twelve children!

This cemetery is also the final resting place for several others who were not related to the Hustons, including two young daughters of the Harper Family. They died when the family was passing through, traveling by covered wagon on their way West. In 1847 the girls were the graveyard’s first residents, and it is believed that in January of 1889, James Huston himself was the last to be buried there.

And so, there it stood for close to 173 years, in that same familiar Dallas County intersection – the quaint plot of land less than 50 feet in diameter, that has come to be known as the little “cemetery in the middle of the road”. And then it seems to have vanished! Now here I am, a lover of history and curious things of the past, wondering where in the world that charming country graveyard has gone.

Thanks to authors of the supernatural and the ghost tales they relate, even the mere thought of a walk through a cemetery may somewhat darken the view of most folks I meet. Not so with me! For my memories of that picturesque little graveyard are much kinder. I remember strolling under the friendly shadows of the old trees sheltering the souls now lying there, the song of the birds, gentle wind through the leaves, and a comforting sense of well-deserved rest and peace. There is, however, a slice of history still present among those pioneer graves, and every one of them has its own story to tell. 

When on previous visits I wandered among those early headstones, one after the other hinted at a life once special, each in its own time and in its own way.

The infant daughter of William and   M. J. Newby who died in 1872, a weathered headstone bearing the date of 1862 for a child named Josiah, another marker almost unreadable but with the name Elizabeth carefully etched into the stone. And then I remembered the story about the first two who had been buried there in 1847. One account indicates they were two slave girls who died on their way to freedom. The present day term “Black Lives Matter” immediately comes to mind, and I can plainly see another story among many just waiting to be written.

The cemetery was actually named for James Brown Huston who came to Iowa in the latter part of the 1840s. He was the patriarch of one of the first families to settle in Dallas County and was the County’s very first attorney.  

Huston purchased 240 acres of land from the Government and since it was along the stage route between Council Bluffs and Fort Des Moines, he established and ran a Stagecoach Station there, as well as the first Post Office in Dallas County. With the coming of the Railroads, however, the Stagecoach Station was abandoned in 1867. Huston had an inn and a tavern on his farm too, and I remember hearing that the Huston Family Home was still standing nearby. It is said that on his property he also established a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Perhaps this is another story yet to be written one day.

History tells us that for decades dirt roads followed by paved streets had been routed around this tiny cemetery, and time and progress always have a way of changing what once had been. With the development of residential and business properties in the area and an increase in traffic, occasionally a driver would miss a turn and crash into the fence that surrounded the graveyard. 

Coupled with the proposed widening of Mills Civic Parkway, which is one of the roads marking that well known intersection, a need developed to eventually protect this historic burial site and to safeguard the people who each year would come to visit.With this in mind, I felt that I was not yet ready to abandon my search for the little cemetery that left such an impression. So it was, on another hot July afternoon – too uncomfortable for a stroll but perfect for a country drive – my husband and I once again paid that Dallas County location a visit. 

As we approached, this time from a different direction, my heart began to race, for I caught sight of a familiar scene surrounded by wooden roadblocks and an army of construction equipment. And there it was after all, almost hidden away tucked into a grassy field, the missing Huston Cemetery with its small weathered headstones still marking the graves of those who were buried there well over a century and a half ago. 

When the construction project is complete, perhaps we will all be able to see that quaint little graveyard in a picturesque setting once again. Sadly though, by that time, the unique reference to its humble beginnings may well have been lost, and it will no longer be a cemetery in the middle of a roundabout on its own little island. For I understand a roadside location is being planned, with a parking lot added and a walking path leading directly up to the cemetery itself for the safety and convenience of its visitors.

And so, as memories of the past slip quietly away, a new generation may come to marvel over such a tiny graveyard beside a busy major highway in Iowa’s Dallas County. I’m sure the West Des Moines Parks Department will still main-tain the grounds, and members of Huston’s Plot Chapter of the local Questers will continue to place wreaths against the headstones at Christmastime and decorate during other holidays of the year. 

No doubt on occasion James Huston’s ancestors will also stop by for a visit and reminisce, and perhaps in some unbeknown and mysterious way, those who were laid to rest there so long ago, may even somehow come to appreciate having been remembered.

As for myself … I will remember, too … how it was when my husband and I  first came to Iowa over 30 years ago, and when I first walked among those pioneer headstones, moved by their age and the unknown stories surrounding many of them still waiting to be told. 

But most of all I will remember the old decorative iron fence that once enclosed that tiny burial ground, those beautiful trees which shaded this unique resting place, and the charming country graveyard itself that had once been known by all as the picturesque little “cemetery in the middle of the road”. ♦

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