April 1, 2012

Pioneer Cemetery Restoration

Two Iowa residents preserving the state's earliest graveyards

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

Like most 17-year-old boys, Dylan Brown-Kwaiser is always happy to get some time behind the wheel. But unlike his joy-riding peers, the high school junior’s road trips include his grandmother in the passenger seat and a long list of historic pioneer cemeteries to explore.

“He does all the driving so I can stare out into the wilderness and see if we can find something,” says Gail Brown, Brown-Kwaiser’s grandmother and a professor in the geographic information system program at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Sometimes we just knock on doors.”

Brown and Brown-Kwaiser have documented and mapped about 1,300 gravestones in dozens of burial grounds since Brown received the Kirkwood Endowed Chair for 2011–2012 to pursue research on 19th- and early-20th-century Iowa cemeteries. The pair’s work—which involves GPS technology, photography, and detailed note taking—helps historians and preservationists piece together information about some of the state’s earliest settlers. Photos and coordinates of each headstone are turned over to the Iowa Gravestone Project, an online database operated by genealogy group IAGenWeb.

“I wasn’t really interested in [cemeteries], but as we got on, we started finding World War I veterans and some people with their gravestones actually written in German,” Brown-Kwaiser says. “It’s kind of interesting seeing that a whole family was wiped out but you don’t know why, or other stuff like that.”

Learning how to clean a disintegrating headstone and searching for tiny graveyards tucked away in cornfields were new experiences for Brown-Kwaiser. Though hunting season and winter weather largely kept Brown and Brown-Kwaiser from the project in fall and winter, Brown hopes recent media coverage will encourage volunteers to join in their efforts this spring. “There’s no way Dylan and I can do this alone,” she says.

But even with just their two-person team, Brown and Brown-Kwaiser are committed to their efforts. Brown-Kwaiser says he plans to keep helping his grandmother while he finishes high school, and Brown is happy to have the oldest of her eight grandchildren around, especially when mapping some of the cemeteries requires forging through tall grasses, barbed wire fences, and Iowa summer heat.

Says Brown: “This is why I take a strapping young man with me!”

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