Iola a bonanza for grave-seeker

By BOB JOHNSON
Register City Editor

Register/Bob Johnson
Randy Thies gave Iolans a tour of Kansas cemeteries by way of a slideshow Tuesday evening.

Dr. Randy Thies gave Iolans something to crow about Tuesday night, albeit a little from the dark side.
Thies, a retired state archeologist, and purveyor of cemeteries, relishes gravestones that yield pertinent information about the deceased’s cause of the death. Iola’s two cemeteries are a bonanza.
Thies was the featured speaker at a meeting of the Allen County Historical Society.
“I got interested in cemeteries when I was driving around the state looking at Indian sites,” Thies said. Finding markers telling the cause of death became a mission.
In a slide show, Thies showed markers that reported a death at the hands of Indians, others killed in feuds. Fires and a railroad accident took the lives of some and one, the result of an apparent argument between two friends who were sweet on the same school teacher, came from a shooting at a schoolhouse meeting.
Then, there are the four in Iola.
Abel Stevens, killed in a rifle accident, and Ann Willim, who fell from a horse, are buried in Iola Cemetery. Alma and Lewis Harless, sister and brother, are interred in Highland Cemetery. Alma died when she was struck by a trolley and Lewis drowned in the lake at Concreto, then a water source for the cement plant that operated there in the early 1900s.
Thies guessed there are 600 formally recognized cemeteries in Kansas and perhaps many more when considering private plots and those ruined past recognition by neglect.

THIES HAD other observations.
The Garden of Eden at Lucas tells in grotesque fashion the story of Adam and Eve and also is the burial place of its original owner, Sam Dinsmore, and his wife. A peculiarity about the place is that Dinsmore lies in full view in a glassed-in portion of a towering mausoleum.
“There must be a pin hole in the seal,” Thies observed. “When I looked there was white fungus growing on his body.”
The oldest marked grave he has found is that of William Thomas Johnson, who was 10 months old when he died April 2, 1840, and was buried in the Shawnee Methodist Mission Cemetery at Fairview.
For many years graves were situated on an east-west grid, with the deceased’s head on the west end of the grave, “so when the sun comes up on resurrection day the person can see it and fly off to heaven,” Thies opined. Also, wives often were buried to the left of their husbands, in the same alignment as when they were married.
Crosses are a prominent part of Catholic cemeteries. In the Volga German cemetery at Victoria there are many large metal ones, Thies said. Hispanic graves often have elaborate markers, just as they do in Mexico, he said.
Several Lutheran cemeteries have adults and children in different parts and not grouped by families. The graves in some of those are laid out in lines with burials chronologically arranged. That started to change about 50 years ago, Thies said, with family plots now more in evidence.
The lone Muslim cemetery Thies has found is Mugbra Muslim Cemetery in Miami County. Graves there are laid out pointing toward Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
A cemetery for prisoners at Fort Leavenworth includes the graves of 14 Nazi prisoners of war, who were hanged immediately after World War II for allegedly having been involved in the murders of four other prisoners. Also at Leavenworth, in a civilian cemetery, is the grave of Bugsy Moran, a contemporary of Al Capone.
Nearly 1,200 patients who died at the old Topeka Insane Asylum are buried in unmarked graves about a foot and a half apart. More recently a granite monument has been erected with the names of all those in the simple cemetery. “You can find the burial spot for each person by measuring from pylons on the edges of the cemetery,” Thies noted.

THIES SAID some small rural cemeteries had suffered from neglect and lack of concern by landowners.
He recalled several graves in a crop field northeast of Liberal, where markers have all been crowded together in one place and the ground above most graves is worked each year and planted to crops.
“Lots of terrible things have happened to cemeteries,” he said.
Many have been ignored to the point that undergrowth has taken them over, making it difficult to find markers and pinpoint where graves are. A slide showed how a tree toppled during a windstorm had pulled a marker from the ground.
In Franklin County a farmer grew tired of having tombstones in his pasture so he piled them all in a corner. They eventually were erected together alongside a nearby road, just close enough that Thies said he feared a county worker plowing the road after a heavy snow might hit them.
Responsibility for cemeteries generally falls to the county or township where they are, Thies said. State law makes it a crime to desecrate a grave, which includes moving or removing a marker. But, Thies cautioned, it is difficult to engage local authorities to repair or keep up many cemeteries, particularly those on private property.

THE PUBLIC presentation, which drew about 50 people to the Gen. Frederick Funston Meeting Hall, followed a dinner for ACH members at the Iola Senior Citizens Center.