Pioneer Cemetery

This appeared in the Clinton Herald about 1975.

Big Rock--Liberty Township has six township cemeteries. But just one of them happens to be rich, says Township Trustee Delmar Spickerman.

Bessie Dutton Murray, a Wheatland area native, improved the Pioneer Cemetery in the late 1930’s in memory of ancestors buried there and of her husband. She later endowed it with a $40,000 trust fund.

The result is a quaint cemetery, enclosed by a fence of native stone and gate made of a hand-hewn wood and hand-crafted ironwork. A variety of trees and well kept landscaping provide for a peaceful atmosphere.

The cemetery is located in the middle of cornfields about eight miles south of Wheatland, just north of the Scott County line.

“It got to be that whenever someone was over there about a half dozen people riding by would stop and ask. “What’s this all about this little cemetery fixed up so nice way out here?” Spickerman said. Thus the three Liberty Township trustees decided to use some extra money from the fund for a memorial monument to the pioneers the cemetery was named after, and which would record the history of the cemetery.

The blue-gray granite monument, 15 feet long, 4 feet high and 1 1/2 feet wide, weighs about 1 1/2 tons and was placed in the cemetery last spring. George Karnedy of the De Witt Memorial Co. designed the stone. “I’m a native of Vermont and was fascinated by this little cemetery since I first saw it a few years ago.” Karnedy credits his school-age daughter, Jody, for some of the monument design, as she was reading books on pioneers while he was designing the stone. He took several ideas for the figures and covered wagon on the stone from illustrations in the books. The granite for the stone is from Barre, Vt., the area famous for its granite and from which Karnedy is a native.

The monument was supposed to be delivered in fall, 1973, but a hairline crack was discovered during shipping. The quarry replaced it with a new stone causing the delay until spring. The stone was trucked cross county. In spring, Karnedy checked out country roads leading to the cemetery, because the truck delivering the stone weighed five tons, and country road bridges often have three or four ton limits. Karnedy, George Landfair, and Robert Hansen, partners in De Witt Monument Co., Clinton, who helped with a winch for the project, set the stone. This included a five-foot deep area of solid concrete beneath the stone for support. Karnedy said each stone needed this concrete support with depth varying with the size and weight of the monument. An average monument would have about 3 1/2 to 4 feet of concrete beneath it, Karnedy said.

If rock and gravel are used rather than concrete, old tombstones often tip, Karndey said. At the Pioneer Cemetery, (unlike most cemeteries) old marble tombstones have been straightened and reinforced with concrete and metal braces, Karnedy said. Another problem with old tombstones is they are marble and weather with age, become illegible with time.

A monument is generally made of a top section and a wider base which provides support and adds grace and beauty. Karbedy said. The Pioneer Cemetery memorial also has two top side sections, with all section set together with a special setting compound.

Mrs. Edna Spies, wife of trustee John Spies, gathered the information on the history of the cemetery for the monument. “I’ve always been interested in cemeteries since I was a kid and I have relatives in Pioneer Cemetery,” she said.

The land was originally granted to Asa Haile by the government in 1840, and it was deeded to Liberty Township trustees for a cemetery in 1855. During 1924, “She felt the cemetery was a credit to her heritage and that’s why she improved it.” Mrs. Spies said.

Mrs. Murray is somewhat of a legend around Wheatland. In the mid 1890’s she married John Murray, who was then a trombone player in a “chautaugua,” a traveling tent show of that era. Later Murray studied law in Clinton, worked for a newspaper, and was a purser on a ship. It was on board a ship that Murray is reported to have met the chewing hum giant. P. K. Wrigley, and Wrigley employed him as an advertising man. “I’ve always heard he invented the term “juicy fruit gum.” said Mrs. Spies. “You know how tongues can wag in a small town like this, when a girl falls in love and marries a man from a tent show.” said Mrs. Spies. “I think her parents worried he would neglect or abandon her, but she came back to Wheatland a wealthy woman and lived here several years before her death in 1945. The Murrays never had any children and the nearest living relative in this area is Charles Patterson, Wheatland; a step-nephew of Mrs. Murray.

When John Murray died in 1936, reportedly a millionaire, Bessie Murray had a fence of native stone and a small stone building constructed at the Pioneer Cemetery in his memory. Spickerman reports Mrs. Murray wanted the stone to come from her old family farm near Dixon, but that stone was unacceptable, so only a small amount of it was used and most stone came from the nearby Big Rock area. Mrs. Murray also had a large bench monument inscribed: “Murray. A man courageous, generous and loyal.”

A sprinkler system was installed at the cemetery and it was later changed to a soft water system because the rust in the well water was discoloring stones. Trees were planted and landscaping done by an area nursery.

Unusual aspects of the cemetery include a sun dial monument for the Murrays’ three dogs. Budda I, Budda II and Buddy Boy and an urn monument for “Polly Parker,” their parrot.

The $40,000 cemetery endowment yields about $2,000 to $3,000 in interest annually, part of which is used for four scholarships for Wheatland and Bennett High School seniors. “It’s the only cemetery in the U. S. that has a record of giving scholarships.” Mrs. Spies said.

Mrs. Spies is a member of New England Women, a group of women with New England ancestors to which Mrs. Murray also belonged. The group gave an Iowa flag to the cemetery in the past and is giving a bicentennial flag to the cemetery to be dedicated this fall.

The most recent burial in the cemetery was around 1972 and approximately 100 persons are buried in the half-acre cemetery. The few remaining lots are spoken for.