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Iowa Cemetery Awakenings

It's where most of us will end up some day: there are well over 5,000 cemeteries in Iowa. One of the state's unique resting places is being prepared for an autumn celebration. 

On a hilltop near Mingo, more than 200 Iowans are buried at Sams Cemetery; the earliest grave is a three month old child who died in 1855. Times were tough for early settlers. Dozens of children are resting here, eight Civil War soldiers among the veterans, a murder victim, and John Sams who started the cemetery. He died of measles.

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Ownership of the cemetery is headed to court.

"The legend is that if you hear the wind chimes it's the voices of angels," according to Bob Gannon, who grew up nearby. "And if you are very still, you can hear your loved ones."

Gannon was raised on a farm a half mile away; his folks and a younger brother already hold honorary positions in the family plot and Bob's own grave marker is waiting here too. The most unique aspect of Sams Cemetery is the outline. From the air, you can clearly see the shape of Iowa. On the ground, you can walk along the border.

Pioneer cemeteries across Iowa are being resurrected after generations of neglect, thanks to the Pioneer Cemetery Law passed 20 years ago. It grants counties authority to repair and maintain some of the state's forgotten graveyards. In Tama County the job is practically done, 28 cemeteries have been fixed up and fenced in.  Joyce Wiese heads the Tama County Pioneer Cemetery Commission.

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This Tama County stone was preserved in its natural surroundings.

"You go to cemeteries today and some of the big ones…they're well kept, mowed, everything done real good," said Wiese, "but the ones that actually made it so they could be here today, they just ignore. To me it's disrespect." 

Sams is Iowa's newest Pioneer Cemetery and a public celebration is planned for September 24th, to include the mass installation of wind chimes, donated by an artist colony in California. The bells will toll for the 60 children who died under the age of ten. On a gusty day last month, Gannon previewed some of the chimes that will be suspended from tree branches and shepherd's hooks.

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Bob sits atop his own tombstone in the Gannon family section.

"There's a lot of children today that have never even been to a funeral, let alone a cemetery," said Gannon, "and it's kind of shocking in a way, and these people cut the ground and came here so that we now have these freedoms and joys to be here. This is our history. As you can see, this one is made up of little bitty bells."

Possession of this ancient land is in dispute, blurred by the years since before statehood when old man Sams acquired it. Gannon later purchased the surrounding property and claims the sacred ground today, but the Jasper County Attorney disagrees. A lawsuit will determine ownership. Steve Story is with the State Association for the Preservation for Iowa Cemeteries.

"It just became a Pioneer Cemetery legally this past February, that's done," according to Story. "But we knew there was some disheartening between two sides and that's what has happened, and so I'm not sure what's going to take place next."

Organizers are promoting a picnic, program and entertainment to honor the Civil War patriots and all the children buried at Sams Cemetery. It is unclear if the jubilee is in legal jeopardy, but Bob Gannon, himself a Vietnam War veteran, is undeterred, and likes to quote Benjamin Franklin: "Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have." 

The Sept. 24th celebration will include the hanging of 60 more chimes.
Credit Iowa Public Radio
The Sept. 24th celebration will include the hanging of dozens more chimes.