I barely scratched the surface at Woodland Cemetery last week so I hope you’ve come back for more.
Woodland has some unique children’s grave markers that I’ll refer to as “baby bed” graves because they resemble a child’s bed. While I have seen some akin to this because their framing looks like a bed or cradle, none had stone “pillows” as part of them. People sometimes call them “garden graves” because they plant flowers in them.
The first one belongs to three children of Jefferson Scott Polk and Julia Herndon Polk. Born in 1831 in Kentucky, J.S. Polk became an attorney. He married Julia Herndon in 1853. In the 1850s, Polk formed a partnership with Judge P.M. Casady and M.M. Crocker (both buried at Woodland). In 1861, Crocker entered the military service, and the firm became Casady & Polk, continuing until 1864.
After Judge Casady retired, F.M. Hubbell (whom we talked about last week) took his place and for 25 years Polk & Hubbell was synonymous with the “push and enterprise in the town” (according to one account). Along with Hubbell, Polk helped found the Equitable Life Insurance Company. He was also instrumental in getting Des Moines’ street car service up and running, which included using it for mail delivery. When he died in 1907, one account of Polk’s funeral said 100 uniformed street car employees served as a guard of honor.
Jefferson and Julia are thought to have seven children buried at Woodland. Three of them (Mary, Lutie, and Daniel) all died under the age of 10 between 1863 and 1871. You can no longer see their names on the circles on the headboard.
I knew before visiting Woodland that the “baby bed” grave markers were in the process of being restored thanks to hard-working volunteers. Jean Wilson and Kelly Penman have unearthed these “beds”, some of which were sunken deep into the ground, along with reattaching the frames and cleaning off years of grime. The colorful pavers and gravel in the Polk “bed’ have replaced the thick weeds that were there before.
Understandably, Julia greatly mourned her little ones. She would often spend hours mourning her children at Woodland, sometimes sitting beside their grave after it had turned dark outside. Worried about her, Jefferson required the carriage driver to stay at the cemetery during her visits until she was ready to return to their home, Herndon Hall.
Behind the Polk “baby bed” are two more for the Miller and Turner families. I don’t know the names of the children. They were still being repaired when I was at Woodland. Jean was kind enough to let me post these photos of the Miller “baby bed” grave, before and after.
In a another part of the cemetery is a “baby bed” marker belonging to the Scribner family. A native of Connecticut, Henry Scribner was born in 1822 and lived in New York until the 1850s. He married Abigail Farnham in 1853 in Watertown, N.Y. Sometime after that, they moved to Des Moines. Henry found work in real estate and did well.
Their first child, Jennie, was born on Feb. 6, 1856 in Des Moines but died only a handful of weeks later. Two more children, Minnie and George, followed in 1857 and 1861, and they would live to adulthood. Their last child, Roger, was born in January 1869 but died exactly six months later.
Henry Scribner died in 1882 under mysterious circumstances. In September 1882, he was found lying unconscious in front of a coal office on Des Moines’ Sixth Street, having been brutally assaulted. He died the next day of his injuries, with no witnesses coming forward to name who’d done it. Despite a $500 reward offered by Governor Buren Sherman, the culprit was never found. Abigail died in 1904 at the age of 74.
Born on May 28, 1881, Harry was the son of brick mason William Martin Ashley and Rebecca Smith Ashley. He died on July 1, 1882 having lived just a few months over a year. The top of the headboard says “HARRY” and above the pillow on the inside of the headboard says “Our Darling”.
Toward the center of the cemetery are three mausoleums situated beside each other that puzzled me when I first saw them. A large white one, a brick one with only a last name and one almost completely overtaken by the ground it was built into.
I could find out nothing about the Baker mausoleum on the far right, which appears to be crumbling. In the center, marked with a date of 1900, is the Giles brick mausoleum. A New York native, Elliott Marion Giles moved to Iowa in the 1860s and married Alice Wigton in 1868. Records indicate he worked as a druggist but later as an insurance salesman. They had three children together.
When Elliott died in 1919, he was living in Tulsa, Okla. with Alice, who died later in 1927. Why the vault is dated 1900 is interesting since Elliott Giles was supposedly the first person recorded to have been interred within it.
By comparison, the mausoleum on the far left was in stellar condition. From the small plaque on the front, I learned it was the final resting place of Iowa Governor Samuel Merrill (1868-1872). It wasn’t until I got home that I found out that the Merrill mausoleum had looked just as bad as its neighbors only a few years ago.
Born in Turner, Maine in 1822, Samuel Merrill became a teacher and moved to the South. Finding his strong abolitionist views unpopular there, he returned to New England to try farming then entered the mercantile business. Merrill was first married to Catherine Thomas, who died in 1847, 14 months after their marriage. In January 1851, he married Elizabeth Hill of Buxton, Maine.
In 1854, Merrill was elected on the abolitionist ticket to the New Hampshire legislature. The Merrills moved to McGregor, Iowa in 1856 and Samuel was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1859. In 1862, he was commissioned Colonel of the 21st Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment, serving until seriously wounded at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge in May 1863 as part of the Vicksburg Campaign.
General Ulysses S. Grant, who led the campaign, referred to Merrill as “eminently brilliant and daring” and that had Merrill not been a general officer at the time, he would have recommended him for the Medal of Honor.
In 1867, Merrill was elected Governor of Iowa on the Republican ticket, and served for two terms, from 1868 to 1872. His record as a civic-minded legislator and patriotic Army officer gave him significant political capital in postwar Iowa.
Samuel and Elizabeth Merrill had four children, three of them dying in childhood. Their son, Jere, lived to the age of 69. The couple eventually moved to California, where Elizabeth died in 1888. In 1897, Samuel was in a streetcar accident and never recovered. His remains were sent back to Iowa and interred in the Merrill mausoleum.
Over time, the Merrill mausoleum fell into disrepair. A falling oak tree damaged it and neglect adding to it becoming a haven for raccoons and opossums. As you can see in the photo above, it was in terrible shape.
In 2016, several organizations and individual Iowans came together to bring the Merrill mausoleum back to its former glory, including Patriot Outreach, former State Senator Dennis Black, Westbrooke Construction, and others. Two-time Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s foundation, the Iowa History Fund, donated money as well. A special ceremony was held at Woodland in June 2016 to unveil the refurbished mausoleum.
One mystery was solved during the renovation — the whereabouts of Elizabeth Merrill’s remains. Cemetery records did not indicate that she had ever been interred in the mausoleum back in 1888 so nobody knew for sure. When the Merrill mausoleum was opened, her remains were found there with her husband’s.
Next time, I’ll be talking about more mausoleums at Woodland and some of the more unique markers there.