Volunteers clean up storm damage at cemetery

By John Butters, The Mt. Pleasant News


A group of volunteers gathered Saturday to clear away the storm damage from the Pioneer section of the Old City Cemetery in Mt. Pleasant.

The previous week?s storm had shattered the cedars that grew between the graves, dropping limbs and debris on the fragile stones.

Joy Conwell, Historical Collection Associate for Iowa Wesleyan University, said she knew that it was a cleanup job that would require volunteers. ?It was a job that couldn?t be handled by just anyone because they couldn?t use the heavy equipment to remove the trees and limbs from around the graves. There was a need for people to come in and clean up the cemetery by hand,? she said.

A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she called church leaders to ask them for assistance from the Mormon Helping Hands, a volunteer group program sponsored by the Mormon Church. A worldwide service organization, it brings together members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their neighbors to provide community service for those suffering a disaster.

Volunteers wearing trademark yellow shirts help people whose lives have been affected by natural disasters and other emergencies. The volunteers also work with government and nonprofit organizations to support and improve the communities where they live.

Working among the fragile grave stones, the volunteers carefully removed the debris from the graves, clearing the paths that lay between the rows of monuments. ?We had as many as 70 people come and work with us here in Mt. Pleasant,? she said.

Church members in Burlington, Fort Madison, Kirksville, Mo., and other congregations in the tri-state area came to help with the cleanup, Conwell said.

Also coming to help with the heavy work were volunteers and commissioners from the Henry County Pioneer Cemetery Commission.

Together, they cut wood, marked damaged graves and hauled the debris to the roadside for the city to pick up. Though the Old City Cemetery is city property, the Pioneer Commission assists with some maintenance work in the oldest part of the cemetery. The commission helps with work that requires hand-labor including stone repair and clearing away storm damage. ?A lot of the early burials were just a casket or if there was a vault, it was made of bricks. Heavy equipment would crush them or collapse the vaults,? Conwell said.

Conwell said she preferred that heavy equipment not be used for another reason. ?It?s sacred ground. It?s a matter of respect for those who have gone before us,? she said.

Conwell has a long-standing interest in the preservation of pioneer cemeteries. She has worked as a consultant to museums and historical societies. The Mt. Pleasant cemetery is a special place, she said.

Viewing the aging markers, she clarified the value of the cemetery to the community. ?It?s the burial place of the founding fathers of the town. It?s a ?Who?s Who? of Mt. Pleasant citizens,? she said.

Among those buried there are several early presidents of Iowa Wesleyan, founders of P.E.O., and the early business men and women who built the community. ?It?s a pre-Civil War cemetery. It is the resting place of our first families. If you want to know the history of the community, it can be found here,? Conwell said.