Christi and I headed west on I-80 intending to spend the night in Malvern at an Air B and B that used to be a small train depot. I looked on the Find a Grave app and noticed there was a cemetery in Avoca just off the interstate on our way there. So we pulled off to take a look.

Graceland Cemetery (also known as Avoca Cemetery) is becomingly situated on a hillside that overlooks  terraced farmland.

Graceland Cemetery is situated in a pretty spot on a hillside.

According to Find a Grave, Graceland has about 2,500 burials and appears to be well cared for. No footstones piled under a tree! I was unable to find out exactly when Graceland was established. But burials date back to the 1850s.

Avoca was established around 1869 with the construction of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad through the area. Avoca is named after Avoca, Ireland. With a population of around 1,600, it has a quaint Main Street that we saw when we dined at the Classic Cafe later.

What I did find was a lot of information about Graceland’s rather small but rare octagonal-shaped chapel. Iowa only has two such shaped cemetery chapels. Over the years the building has been used to hold funerals, and has acted as a temporary mausoleum, sexton’s office, and storage space.

Graceland Cemetery Chapel was built in 1875.

According to the application for it to be made a National Historic Site (which happened in 1986), “Because of its siting and octagonal form, Graceland Chapel has a picturesque quality, and this aspect is further enhanced by an effective combination of decorative elements drawn from the Italianate, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival styles.”

Graceland’s chapel was once in danger of being demolished.

So why build an octagonal-shaped chapel rather than a traditional four-sided one? Apparently, there was an “Octagonal craze” that started in the 1850s by a man named Orson Squire Fowler. Already a noted phrenology practitioner (interpreting the shape of the human head) and author of sex manuals, his 1848 book A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building was embraced by many and it went through nine printings. Think of it as a sort of Victorian-era feng shui.

Orson Squire Fowler published books on phrenology, building octagonal houses, and sex.

Fowler lectured in Dubuque, Davenport, Iowa City, and Keokuk in 1856, and his writings were well known in Iowa for years after that. It may have been his belief that “to impress an audience, a speaker requires that they be gathered around him” which inspired the unknown architect of Graceland’s chapel to choose the octagonal style.

According to the application, by the summer of 1984, the chapel had deteriorated to such a poor state that the city was talking about demolishing it. That spurred the creation of the Newton-Avoca Historical Society, a group of locals who successfully raised enough money to restore the chapel.

The chapel was locked up, but by looking in the window we could see panels with historical information on them. So I’m guessing they hold programs at the chapel from time to time.

Two of the first markers I saw was for a mother and child, Rachel Bergen and her infant daughter, Mertle.

Mertle Bergen died only nine days after her mother.

Born in Indiana, Garret Bergen was the son of George and Margaret Garret. He married Rachel Voorhies (or Voorhees) in 1867 in Big Grove, Iowa. According to the 1870 Census, Garret and Rachel were farming next door to his father in Big Grove with their one-year-old son Virgil. In 1872, George moved to Avoca and opened a hotel. Garret and his family moved there at the same time.

In late August 1874, Rachel gave birth to daughter Mertle. Rachel died on Sept. 22, 1874 for unknown reasons and Mertle died only a few days later on Oct. 1. Garret remarried the following year, and moved back to Big Grove with Virgil and his new wife.

Sometimes a little tidbit of news will catch my attention. When I looked up Michael Wetherby’s memorial on Find a Grave (spelled Weatherbee in some places), I learned he was born in 1838 in New York and married Favorette Bennett in Illinois in 1866. He served with the Seventh Michigan Cavalry, Company I, during the Civil War.

A native of New York, Michael Wetherby didn’t spend many years in Avoca.

He and Favorette moved to Avoca sometime after they married. They lived there during the 1870s before moving to Council Bluffs, Iowa where he worked as a successful liveryman. The Wetherbys had several children. When he died in July 1915, he was buried in Graceland Cemetery.

But I was surprised to find this item reported in the October 10, 1896 issue of Avoca’s “Nonpareil” that said “Mike Weatherbee disposed of his famous old stage coach yesterday to Buffalo Bill. The consideration, it was reported, was $120.”

Wait a minute. THE Buffalo Bill? According to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Golden, Colo., Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show stopped in Council Bluffs on October 9, 1896 as part of their tour. So conditions were ripe for such a transaction. I’m certain it wasn’t his famous Deadwood stagecoach since it had been in his show since the 1880s. But he could always use a backup, right?

One of the saddest children’s graves I’ve ever seen was for the sons of Benjamin Franklin and Aura May Smith Hake. On the top are two children, with what appears to be two lambs between them. The heads have since broken off.

The Hake boys died eight days apart in 1879. Their grave marker says “Gone Too Soon”.

A native of Ohio, B.F. Hake was born in 1846 and served in the 11th Wisconsin infantry during the last two years of the Civil War. He married Aura Mae Smith in Lewis, Iowa in 1874 before they settled in Avoca. Aura gave birth first to Harry on Feb. 11, 1875. She then had Earl Hake on Nov. 4, 1877. Harry died at the age of four on April 19, 1879. Earl died just eight days later on April 27, 1979, only 15 months old.

The Hakes moved to Nebraska in the late 1880s and prospered in the cattle business. They would have three more sons that all lived well into adulthood. B.F. and Aura Mae moved to California in their later years to help improve his health. They had just moved to Wyoming where B.F. hoped to live out what years he had left with his sons when he died on May 27, 1913. Aura Mae died in 1934 and is buried beside him.

Finally, Graceland has a nice example of a tree monument for Abram Harris and his second wife, Mary.

Mary Harder was 18 years old when she married widower Abram Harris, who was 52.

A native of Saratoga County, New York, Abram Harris was born in 1824. He married Irish immigrant Johanna Ferris sometime before 1852. The 1860 Census indicates they were living in Ottawa, Ill. with their four children. His profession at that time was butcher.

The family moved to Colorado for a year before moving to Avoca in 1870, where Abram opened a meat market. He was later a successful farmer and cattle owner. At some point, he served two years as Avoca’s mayor and two years as justice of the peace. Abram and Johanna would have five children together, two who died in their teens.

Johanna Harris was 47 when she died in 1874.

Johanna died in February 1874. Abram remarried in December 1875 to Mary Harder, who was 18. Abram was 52. At the time, Abram’s oldest daughter was 20 so the two may have been classmates. Despite the age difference, Abram and Mary had seven children together, with only one dying in infancy.

Abram died in 1892 at the age of 68. Mary died in 1923 at the age of 64.

Next time, we’ll visit Malvern Cemetery.

Another view of Graceland Cemetery.