OTTUMWA — You may not even know they’re there. Or you may see a few headstones peeking out of the tree line as you’re driving down the highway.
Pioneer cemeteries can be found all across the state of Iowa, but they’re falling into disrepair as the years go by. History enthusiasts like author Lee Ann Simmers-Dickey are trying to change that.
Speaking at the Reminisce Society program at the Ottumwa Public Library Tuesday, Dickey detailed the work that she and other interested people are doing to restore and document these historic cemeteries. A cemetery is considered pioneer if there hasn’t been a burial in it for 50 years or longer. That makes them a significant part of Iowa’s history, Dickey said.
“Each county [in Iowa] has at least 20 pioneer cemeteries that they’re trying to do upkeep on,” she said. “They’re always looking for volunteers because it can be hard, time-consuming work.”
Restoration of these cemeteries falls to the township trustees and county boards of supervisors. If it is one particular family buried there, then that responsibility falls to the family.
For anyone interested in beginning their own restoration projects, Dickey directs them to their county’s Pioneer Cemetery Commission, the auditor’s office and the board of supervisors. These officials can provide valuable information such as maps and records that have already been gathered.
In Ottumwa, those interested in cemetery restoration can also call Beverly Bethune at 641-799-6863.
“I really want younger people to get involved. I want to get the word out because this is something that’s really fallen by the wayside,” she said. “It takes a lot of people and a lot of work just to get stones cleaned and readable. There are more people doing genealogy and looking for this information.”