Friday, September 02, 2005

News:- Pleasant Valley Cem. Story

Cemetery debate: Preserving nature vs. preserving history

By Lee Bonorden/Austin Daily Herald

It's an interesting clash.

On one side is Prairie Smoke, an organization dedicated to "preserving and protecting our prairie heritage."

On the other side is Kathy Pike, a member of the Mitchell County Pioneer Cemetery Restoration Project.

Pike strongly objects to any rural cemetery going ignored. "I don't believe a cemetery is a place to preserve natural habitat."

A week ago, Pike said in the Austin Daily Herald that she felt Pleasant Valley Township Cemetery was going ignored. A recent visit to the cemetery in northeastern Mower County revealed an overgrowth of grass, wildflowers and weeds, according to Pike.

She wanted somebody -- such as Boy Scouts or 4-H'ers -- to come to the rescue.

"Not so fast," said Pleasant Valley Township officials. The cemetery was being taken care of ... sort of.

According to Robert Kuhlman, who owns farm land around the cemetery, plus land around the well-manicured Pleasant Valley Lutheran Church cemetery nearby, allowing native prairie grasses and wildflowers to grow in the cemetery was a compromise to preserve natural habitat.

Once a year in May, Mower County Sentencing To Service offenders are dispatched to the cemetery for a clean-up prior to the Memorial Day holiday.

The rest of the year, Mother Nature is in charge.

Further examination of the issue -- on the eve of the last summer holiday and an ideal time for country drives down rural roads -- revealed motives behind both the prairie enthusiasts and cemetery restorationists.

First, the prairie enthusiasts.

Preserving native habitat

The Prairie Smoke chapter's members discovered Pleasant Valley Township Cemetery this summer and pointed out its possible significance.

That came in early July when Prairie Smoke members visited the cemetery with the township board members to "show them what a treasure they have."

The prairie enthusiasts discovered wild quinine, Culver's root, rattlesnake master, white wild indigo, cream wild indigo, prairie vetchling, purple and white prairie clovers and more.

According to township board supervisor Kuhlman, the preservation and maintenance of the cemetery remain "under discussion."

Restoring pioneer cemeteries

There's nothing to discuss as far as Pike is concerned.

"There's got to be a better way," said the Austin woman.

Pike points to Mitchell County, Iowa where cemetery history is chronicled with care and attention and, most importantly, shared with the public.

Travel the country roads of Mitchell County and Pike dares anyone to find a rural cemetery that is not maintained.

Neal Du Shane, of Fort Collins, Colo., is the coordinator for the Mitchell County Pioneer Cemetery Restoration Project (MCPCRP). He has several volunteer coordinators, guiding various additional volunteers on individual projects.

The MCPCRP got its start in April 2002 with the question by Neal: "Wonder if there are any ghost towns in Mitchell County?"

What do pioneer cemeteries have to do with ghost towns?

According to Pike: plenty. "Logically it is reasoned that a pioneer cemetery may be the only remaining physical evidence that has survived in these historic communities, since 1850 when Mitchell County started to be populated and settled," she said.

Since 1850 there have been approximately 50 known communities in Mitchell County. "A few were no more than post offices in a farm house centrally located or the non developed dreams of the pioneers," she said.

Towns prospered as the westward expansion of immigrants continued. They faded almost as quickly -- usually because of a lack of transportation.

The settlers moved on to permanent communities, leaving, literally, their dead behind. Buried in a cemetery atop a hill, under an old oak tree or some other place of dignity, respect and honor on the prairie.

Pike and her zealous peers in the MCPCRP (Go to leave every stone unturned when they visit a cemetery, but they may straighten some others or even repair some to stand up to time. "Cemeteries are important to family historians, community historians and genealogists everywhere, and we have a Web site and an active group of volunteers who are interested in preserving this kind of history," she said.

Pike said Iowa has a state law that grants "Pioneer Cemetery" status to any cemetery having six or less burials in the last 50 years.

Pleasant Valley Township Cemetery's last burial was in the 1950s, according to Kuhlman.

According to Pike, 39 of Mitchell County's 63 cemeteries have earned the "Pioneer" designation.

Pike would like to see a similar effort undertaken in Mower County to protect cemeteries such as the Pleasant Valley one.

The Pleasant Valley Township Board is caught in the middle. Like other townships, it is financially strapped to provide the basic services it must provide residents.

Now, Pike on her own and the Prairie Smoke zealots have put a tiny rural cemetery in the spotlight.

Rural living includes the dead and Pike said of the forgotten souls lying in graves amidst wild indigo and clovers, "These people belong to somebody."

To see for yourself, go to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Pleasant Valley Township near Intestate 90 and look around ... it's part of the fun in the countryside.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at

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