Historic preservation taking hard look at city cemetery

Local historian Karen Kester stands near the grave of Fort Madison first settler and founder John Holly Knapp in the city cemetery in the 1400 block of Avenue H. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


FORT MADISON – The fence is gapped and rickety, gravestones are toppled and even buried, and weeds are consuming plots – but the history is there and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission wants to ramp up efforts to clean up the historical City Cemetery.

The 3.6 acre cemetery located on the south side of the 1400 block of Business 61, holds the remains of some of Fort Madison’s most important founding figures, as well as prominent military figures from the Civil War.

Chris Sorrentino, the HPC chairman brought historian Karen Kester out to meet with volunteers, commission members and the media to give a brief history of the cemetery on Tuesday morning.

Sorrentino said it’s time to get the cemetery back in respectable shape and make it an integral part of historical tours through the city.

Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said he’s challenged city staff to get the decorative iron fencing at the cemetery repaired and cleaned up by the end of the calendar year, Sorrentino said.

The southeast corner of the lot is missing close to one hundred feet of fencing. Sorrentino said he’d like to have the fence repaired to hold the historical value, but some areas are going to have to be replaced.

The cemetery has close to 1,500 burials with a center plot that holds the remains of Betsy Ross’ granddaughters, placed by the Jean Espy Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The cemetery is peppered with broken and toppled grave stones and other markers that are sinking to the elements of overgrowth.

“The ones that can be straightened, lets straighten. The one’s that can be repaired repair. The ones that have to be replace because they aren’t legible anymore, we need to look at the cost of replacing them and look at grants,” Sorrentino said.

“I’m working with the state and it’s not going to be an easy road. This will be a few years project.”

Kester has uncovered many stories about remains of people that were buried in the city cemetery.

“During the civil war there was prisoner that escaped from the train. they chased him through town and shot him here in the cemetery and just buried him where he fell,” Kester said.

She said the oldest marked grave is Gen. John Holly Knapp the founder of Fort Madison.

“If there is anybody before that, there’s really no record,” Kester said. “That’s the oldest marked grave and I think he had a cousin here about the same age.”

Another unique grave marker is the stone monument to John Van Valkenburg that has a large stone ball on a pedestal. Van Valkenburg was a Supreme Chancellor of the Knights of Pythias. The Pythians were founded in 1864 in Washington D.C., then a secret-society and were the first fraternal order to receive a charter under an act of Congress.

Karen Kester stands next to the grave monument of John Van Valkenburg in the city cemetery Tuesday morning on a media tour of the cemetery put on the Historic Preservation Commission. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

The ball on the top shows markings of movement. HCP board member Andy Andrews said the sun actually heats one side of the ball more than the other and the expansion caused by the heating actually causes the ball to move.

Sorrentino is pushing to get applications started to get the cemetery added to the National Register of Historical Places to help open some funding for the needed work.

“The funding doesn’t have to come from grants there, but it would certainly open doors,” he said.

“These headstones have been neglected for so long now, it’s time. These are the founders of our city and it needs to be protected.”

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