116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WATERLOO — In one corner of the German Burial Ground of Bennington Township, the name and dates on a tablet-shaped tombstone are nearly indecipherable. Carving from the mid- to late-1800s has been eroded by weather and age. Recessed at the top of the stone is a small carved lamb symbolizing it as a child’s grave.
On the opposite side of the peaceful cemetery, a shield-shaped tombstone honors the final resting place of Johann (John) Adams, who survived Civil War battles with Company K, 112th Illinois Infantry, and died in 1903. A peony bush planted years ago nearly envelops the marker.
Also known as Pioneer Cemetery, it was established in 1864. On May 28, a Memorial Day service with a color guard and taps took place at the burial grounds, hosted by the Cedar Falls Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3896.
“We value the cemetery and its history,” said Jerry Kramer of Cedar Falls, a member of the German Burial Ground Association and a descendant of families buried there. “Probably every township in Iowa had a cemetery. Some are taken care of, and some are not.”
There are 12 known pioneer cemeteries in Black Hawk County.
A pioneer cemetery in Iowa is defined as “one where 12 or fewer burials have taken place in the past 50 years,” said Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz, collections manager/curator at the Cedar Falls Historical Society.
She has spent considerable time researching burial grounds in the area and located a dozen that meet the state’s criteria.
“Looking at these pioneer cemeteries, you begin to see so many families, ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths intertwined through the years,” she said.
Since 2012, association members gather in spring for a day of tombstone cleanings at the German Burial Grounds, said Marilyn Davenport of Cedar Rapids.
“We’ve cleaned a lot of tombstones. We are gentle because we don’t want to damage them, but we want to be able to read them, if we can,” she explained. Older tombstones are often inscribed in German. There also are graves of World War I and II veterans.
Davenport and Kramer are first cousins and have great-great-grandparents and a great-great uncle buried in the cemetery. The cemetery is also the final resting place for Kramer’s great-great-great-grandfather Johann Schenk, who died in 1877.
On May 24, Davenport planted wildflower seeds at the cemetery and later in the week, loaded her car with flowers to mark the graves for Memorial Day. She appreciates “honoring the people who settled this area.”
In 1852, German immigrant Conrad Fritz bought land in Bennington Township where he and his wife, Wilhemina, settled with their three children. They built a sod house on a low slope near a creek fed by a stream, Davenport said.
After a wild wagon ride to and from Waterloo for supplies, a pregnant Wilhemina gave birth prematurely and died May 16, 1864. Fritz buried her a short distance from their sod home, followed a week later by their infant son, Freidrick, who was buried beside her. The graves are southeast of the cemetery gates.
“Caring for the cemetery is a family tradition, but I’m a newbie and have been doing it only a few years. I respect the people buried here and the lives they had. It shows our connection to the past,” said Debbie Fowler of Denver. Her sister, Gloria Clough, is association treasurer.
Their great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weingartner, and a great-great uncle are buried here. On this particular day, Fowler brought a double wedding ring quilt that their mother, Evelyn Richards Kuhlmann, made with her grandmother Elizabeth C. (Weingartner) Wetzel in 1933. Fowler draped it across the tombstone as a sign of affection.
Civil War veterans
Three Civil War veterans are buried in the Gerholdt Cemetery southeast of Finchford in Union Township, established in 1869.
Each grave — Thomas Hackett, Adolph F. Matz and Enoch Vangundy — has a GAR marker.
Hackett’s grave serves as a memorial. He died on March 10, 1863, aboard the gunboat Mound City and is buried on Louisiana Point, opposite Vicksburg, according to records provided by Huffman-Klinkowitz.
Joe Bohr, a retired history teacher, has immersed himself in maintaining Fairfield Chapel Cemetery, west of Cedar Falls on Butler Road on the line between Black Hawk and Grundy counties.
A board of trustees with the First United Methodist Church of Cedar Falls cares for Fairfield.
“I fell into it, really, because it’s really an area of interest for me,” Bohr said. “We have a responsibility to show respect.”
Exactly when the cemetery was established is unclear, but it began on land donated by one of the families in a German settlement in the area.
A small chapel was built in 1871 by the Evangelical Church of North America, in use until 1917 when the congregation founded Riverview Park in Cedar Falls and moved it there in 1918. It fell into disrepair and was purchased and moved to private property.
“In 1926, Herman Tostlebe donated $500 for perpetual care of the cemetery and that fund was passed along from church to church until it came to the First United Methodist Church,” Bohr said. “Only one new grave will be allowed in the cemetery because the stone is already in place.”
Only 34 burials were recorded — and one-fourth were children younger than 18. Bohr knows unmarked graves are in the cemetery, and in the 1930s, vandals broke or turned over numerous headstones.
“There was no way to figure out where the headstones belonged, so a hole was dug and the pieces buried,” he said.
“There’s really no such thing as care ‘in perpetuity’ if there are no family members left to visit or care for the grave, and no one interested in maintaining a cemetery like this,” Bohr said. “That’s why what we do is important.”
Perpetual care is an expectation most individuals have after death, Huffman-Klinkowitz added.
“It’s a wistful idea that someone is always going to be there to care for your gravesite. In smaller communities, especially, lots of times they didn’t record or register names of people buried or publish an obituary in the newspaper. With nothing written down, there’s no way to know.”