As in every pioneer community across the country, a burial ground was one of the first areas set aside in Marion. Oak Shade Cemetery’s original five acres date to the early 1840s, before Iowa was a state, making it one of the oldest cemeteries in Eastern Iowa.
The land for the original Oak Shade was donated. Those who are buried there paid for their graves, and while some of the early monuments were impressive, no one was contributing to maintaining the grounds.
The original section was laid out in 17 rows in which burials occurred in the order that they happened. Families were not buried together, as is now usually the case.
Among those buried in Marion’s Oak Shade Cemetery, at 789 Second Ave., is the youngest soldier to enlist in the Civil War, Mancil Root.
Mancil was not yet 10 when he joined to play drum for his regiment. He survived, and in 1900, moved to Cedar Rapids. He died in 1929 and is one of about 50 Civil War soldiers buried at Oak Shade.
Another Civil War veteran buried there is Thomas J. McKean, who was a general in the Union Army. He became Marion’s first mayor when he returned from the war. He died in 1870 at age 59.
By 1876, city officials had bought another nine acres to add to the cemetery. Another addition came in 1879. By 1897, a new third addition was platted. Two years later, alleys that had been part of the cemetery were removed.
Oak Shade’s 50 acres had more than 5,060 graves in 1914. The Marion Federation of Women’s Clubs set up a Cemetery League to oversee improvements at the cemetery because funds from the city and fees from individual lot sales did not cover the cemetery’s general upkeep. The League used its club dues to care for more than 400 lots.
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In the spring of 1916, attention was turned to the pioneer section, the oldest part of the cemetery. A former Marion resident, O.C. Wyman of Minneapolis, donated enough money to clean up the section and straighten long-neglected monuments.
The cemetery was under the care of a sexton until 1932, when a board of trustees was formed. The cemetery’s income from then on came through taxes, perpetual care contracts and donations. Those efforts continued, sometimes sporadically, for the next 40 years.
In 1951, a memorial fund drive asked donations from the public and family members who had relatives buried there. The cemetery had added 10 acres but not much more support.
In January 1952, the Oak Shade Cemetery Memorial Association was incorporated to help fund improvements.
Even on a tight budget, allowances had to be made for weather events. In 1953, a windstorm uprooted 15 large trees and knocked over a dozen tombstones. Between the help of a handful of high schoolers, the Marion streets department and two members of the cemetery board, everything was cleaned up by Memorial Day.
A plant behind the cemetery for disposal of “garbage, limbs, trees and stumps” necessitated building a road southwest of the cemetery to keep vehicles off cemetery roads.
A grave robber vandalized a crypt in 1988. The crypt had been undergoing stonework repair when someone noticed its lock had been broken. Four burial vaults were inside. Two were concrete and untouched, but two were made of wood and one of them had been opened. The body was missing its skull, which turned up in the KCRG-TV9 mailroom.
Although the body in the crypt was that of a woman interred half a century before, no conclusion was reached about why the skull was taken, although authorities suspected it involved a satanic ritual.
The 30-acre cemetery’s relative peacefulness was disrupted again in 2001 when vandals toppled monuments and broke headstones. The damage was especially disconcerting to American Legion Post 298, whose members had recently repaired and replaced tombstones marking the graves of Civil War and War of 1812 soldiers.
The cemetery is also the final resting place of Lizzie and Ella Cherry, two members of the infamous quartet known as The Cherry Sisters, who are buried on a steep hillside.
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In 2017, headstones were placed on the sisters’ graves, thanks to volunteers and a donation from Novak & Brannon Monuments in Marion.
The other Cherry sisters, Effie and Jessie, are buried at Linwood Cemetery in Cedar Rapids.
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