So we’re nearing the end of my Iowa/South Dakota 2018 adventure back in Iowa. While I truly enjoyed all the cemeteries we visited, and seeing Sioux Falls for the first time, our excursion to Le Mars Cemetery was by far my favorite. It’s probably going to take at least three parts to cover it all.
Origins of Le Mars
According to Le Mars’ web page, the history of the town goes back as early as the 1850s when white settlers arrived to the region now known as Plymouth County. The county of Plymouth was organized in 1853 and started with 2 townships. Le Mars was platted in 1869, but no lots were sold until the Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad, later part of the Illinois Central Railroad, arrived in 1870.
You might think, as I did, that Le Mars was named after a Frenchman. But that’s not what happened. In 1869, Le Mars was named when railroad builder John I. Blair came by special train with a company of officials and a group of ladies. These ladies were asked to suggest a name for the town, then know as Saint Paul Junction. The ladies’ names were (and locals quibble a bit on whether or not all the names are accurate): Lucy Underhill, Elizabeth Parsons, Mary Weare, Anna Blair, Rebecca Smith and Sarah Reynolds. The result: Le Mars.
Unlike many rural Iowa towns, Le Mars did not begin as your typical farming settlement but was pitched as an English colony of sorts. In Philadelphia in 1876, Oxford University student William B. Close and Daniel Paullin, a land agent who was promoting land sales in Illinois and Iowa, talked about the opportunities in Iowa. Inspired by Paullin’s idea, Close and his three brothers organized the Iowa Land Company.
The Close family was well connected in England and secured financing for their venture. They encouraged upper-class Englishmen to join the colony. Several Englishmen came to buy farms and ranches, and set up banks and other businesses. You might be asking yourself why, as did I.
An English Colony for “Second Sons”
Young Englishmen, especially the “second sons” of elite families were encouraged to travel to Le Mars to learn the business of farm management. Some of the older men took responsibility for the housing and training of these young pupils. In England, such young men were not known for being incredibly industrious but tended to live off the coffers of their eldest brothers who held the family money.
Le Mars is not the first type of “colony” of this nature, another being Rugby, Tenn. Founded in 1880, it had similar origins but failed miserably due to many factors I won’t get into. While Le Mars fared better, I’m not sure a great many of the young men truly took to farming. I read that some were known to have unhitched plow horses for informal racing and betting, among other activities. They even played polo.
While the original experiment fizzled out around 1890 after the death of Fred Close in a polo accident in 1890, some of the Brits stayed an married Americans. By 1895, when the Prairie Club caught fire and had to be rebuilt, the new club began accepting forced Americans as well as British members.
Birth of Blue Bunny
While few people know about Le Mars’ British connection, many are familiar with the ice cream that one of its families started producing that became a household name.
In 1913, Fred H. Wells, Jr. paid a local dairy farmer $250 for a horse, delivery wagon, a few cans and jars, and the goodwill of the business. His investment covered the milk distribution route and guaranteed Wells a source of raw milk from a herd of just 15 milk cows. Around 1925, Fred and his sons began manufacturing ice cream in Le Mars.
In 1935, the brothers decided to run a “Name That Ice Cream” contest in the Sioux City Journal. A Sioux City man won the $25 cash prize for submitting the winning entry, “Blue Bunny,” after noticing how much his son enjoyed the blue bunnies in a department store window at Easter. The winner, an illustrator , also created the first Blue Bunny logo, used on Blue Bunny packaging for nearly 70 years.
Ice Cream Capital of the World
Le Mars reportedly earned the title of “Ice Cream Capital of the World” in 1994 after being recognized for more ice cream being made by one manufacturer in one location. Le Mars makes the most of this distinction and it’s noted on the town’s sign as you enter.
Christi and I visited the Blue Bunny ice cream parlor when we arrived in downtown Le Mars, which has preserved a number of those original British-built storefronts. The parlor boasts a great store of Blue Bunny merchandise (I bought a cool tie dye t-shirt) and a small museum upstairs. It’s definitely worth a stop.
If you ever make it to LeMars, you’ll notice several fiberglass ice cream cones around town uniquely designed to reflect local businesses. This one pictured below is right across from the Blue Bunny ice cream parlor and I believe it is for a church. About 55 of them can be seen around Le Mars, having been part of a local art project.
If you’re wondering, we finally did make it to Le Mars Memorial Cemetery, although the sign says “Memorial Cemetery”. I’m going to refer to it as Le Mars Cemetery. I could find very little about the cemetery’s history. Not when it was established, who owned the land, etc. According to Find a Grave, it has close to 7,000 graves. An 1893 article states it covers 20 acres and was managed by a man named C.P. Woodward.
The first person I wanted to find at the cemetery was Blue Bunny’s founder, Fred Hooker Well, Jr. To my surprise, while he had a Find a Grave memorial, there was no photo of his grave. I remedied that quickly.
The next two markers I’m going to focus on were actually among the last I found during our visit. But I wanted to talk to them in this installment because they’re not white bronze markers and I’ll be focusing on them next week. They are unlike any other in the cemetery.
The Artistic Moon Sisters
Born in Ohio, Araminta “Mintie” Moon and her sister, Sylvia Theresa Moon, were both of a creative and artistic nature. They were the daughters of Eveline and George Moon. They had a younger brother named Willis. I don’t know when George died but by 1870, Eveline and her three children had left New York and settled in Waterloo, Iowa, which is 220 miles east of Le Mars.
The Waterloo newspapers often featured stories about the sisters’ artistic pursuits. They were popular in local society and both enjoyed participating in local plays. Mintie was the sister known for her painting. Theresa focused on supporting literary pursuits, singing, and playing the organ. Mintie took classes at the Massachusetts Normal School Art School in Boston for a few years. Willis helped support the family as a bookkeeper.
Sometime after 1880, Mintie and Theresa opened their own school in Waterloo that they called the Art Association. They hosted a number of exhibitions there and taught students. But Mintie’s health began to fail. She had contracted tuberculosis. The family moved to Le Mars around that time. Several months later, Mintie died on March 15, 1884. She was only 30 years old.
“To Live in Loving Hearts Is Not To Die”
Eveline died only three years later in 1887. Later that year, Theresa married attorney Alvin Low. He had older children from a previous marriage. By 1900, the family had moved to Los Angeles, Calif. Willis, who never married, shared their home later.
I can find no evidence that Theresa continued her artistic pursuits in California. She died at the age of 73 in 1925. Her body was brought back to Le Mars, where she was buried beside her beloved sister, Mintie, and her mother.
Willis continued to live with his brother-in-law Alvin and his step-niece and nephews in California. He died in 1941 and is buried in the same lot as his sisters. There is no photo of his grave or Eveline’s on Find a Grave and I did not see any for them when I was there.
Next time, I’ll delve into the wonderful collection of white bronze markers at Le Mars Cemetery. There are more of them here than any other cemetery I’ve ever visited.