Loess Hills Cemetery Mystery

Jan 27, 2015

A murky story continues to baffle amateur historians in the Loess Hills. It stretches back to early statehood, when a pioneer settled in Monona County and gathered workers on his farmstead. Now, there’s an effort to bring notoriety to a one-acre plot that served as a communal burial ground. 

A tale of truth and hearsay come together at this isolated cemetery between the towns of Turin and Moorhead. Retired businessman Harold Johnston gives tours of the Loess Hills, and this is one of his favorite stops.

“When I was in high school we used to bring girls out here and scare the heck out of them and stuff like that and it was kind of the dirty little secret of Monona County, so it always kind of fascinated me to learn about the history of it.” 

In one word, the history is vague, although most accounts agree this is an early African American cemetery for families who worked the land owned by Adam Miers, who was white.

South Jordan Cemetery
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"There are many families around here who integrated with these people, when you go back 100 years there was a whole different mindset about the black population.”

By the 1880's, the Monona County census listed 88 African Americans or mixed blood residents…probably the most ever. Some worked for Adam Miers, and lived in cave-like dwellings carved into the Loess Hills. But, who were they? Former slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad? Archeologist Brennan Dolan has made several visits to the site.

“The other side of the story is these could very well be free blacks, who after the civil war migrate north, something about the Loess Hills may draw you to an area where you’re not going to deal with a lot of conflict.”

They were different from other Iowans and not always welcome. At one point, several dozen township residents signed an intimidating letter accusing them of criminal acts. By the turn of the century the settlement had practically vanished; some are buried here, at South Jordan Cemetery. How many is unclear. Jacob Harding oversees a nearby cemetery, and locates graves with dowsing rods.

Jacob Harding uses dowsing rods to locate unmarked burial plots
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“I believe just from today, walking out there and using dowsing rods and water witching tools that there may be over 148 graves out there, and most of them are unmarked.”

So much of the legend has faded since the Mier’s farm disappeared and a single acre was set aside as a burial ground in 1882. Just who is forgotten, 6-feet under.  Loess Hills historian Harold Johnston believes many of the remains are children.

“Since some of the local people integrated with these people, married and had children with them and this sort of thing, I think it was a lot of the stones disappeared and were vandalized and stolen to break that connection.”

The oldest surviving memorial is 130 years old
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“This is the oldest marker still in existence. George W. Stuard died April 1884 at age of 49. On the bottom it says, “Jesus loves the pure and holy.” 

“I just feel that a cemetery is a quiet place, a reverent place and you need to be respectful of the people who are there, and honor them as best you can.”

Judy Ehlers has a lifelong attachment; members of her family still own the surrounding hills. She’s leading a campaign to unravel the complicated history, and have the hallowed ground sanctioned on the National Register of Historic Places.

Judy Ehlers wants to bring fame to the forgotten cemetery
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“I would like to see it be something that people could come to as a tourist stop, that people can come to and be proud of. But I think times have changed and I think in today’s time we can be a little more tolerant and understanding of those situations and maybe that will help us come up with some answers for our questions too.” 

A rustling oak tree soars over the few tombstones, and broken pieces, that remain. For now, the hillside graveyard is an unfinished story; an obscure historic landmark just waiting to be discovered in Iowa’s Loess Hills. In Monona County, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.