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By Angie Hynek
The Pumptown Cemetery is north of where the Pumptown Settlement was located north of Ellston (on the west side of 130th Ave) and remains the last remnant of the village’s existence. This cemetery is the resting place of the earliest Union Township settlers, their wives and children, Civil War veterans, and WWI veterans. It is on the ridge in a field about 100 yards off a dirt road northwest of Sun Valley Lake in the NW ¼ of Section 15, T 70, R 28, latitude 405200N, longitude 0940400, Union township, Ringgold County, Iowa.
The Pumptown Cemetery filled within just twenty-five years with rows and rows of stones. Men wore out their bodies with hard labor and women were taxed by having so many births. A woman typically had a baby every year, unless there was a loss of a child. Sometimes a baby would not be named for the first year, because the death rate was so high. A mid-wife or nearby neighbor woman would assist with the delivery of a baby. If someone became ill, home remedies, often made from local herbs and plants, were used. The theory of germs and the need for sanitation was not accepted until well after the Civil War in 1870. A vaccine for cholera was not developed until 1879 and penicillin, which treated scarlet fever, was not discovered until 1928. Doctors were scarce and learned from experience, seldom having formal training. The pioneer diet was limited. Drafty log cabins had dirt floors and no insulation. These were just some of the factors that led to a high mortality rate.
The Pumptown Cemetery (a.k.a. Union Cemetery or Anderson Cemetery) was started around 1855. Typical for cemeteries of the day, many children were buried there. The family usually went to the local stone carver or ordered a headstone through a grave marker maker. This was the last act for the deceased and often a symbol and poem was lovingly selected for the headstone design. Some common headstone symbols used in the Pumptown Cemetery were a lamb symbolizing innocence for an infant or child, a bird symbolizing eternal life or messenger of God, a book symbolizing the Bible and Divine Word, a rose symbolizing love and purity, the obelisk shape symbolizing rebirth as the connection between earth and Heaven, and an urn on top (usually broken off) symbolizing the soul and immortality. The most popular stone used in the Pumptown Cemetery was an easily carved low grade white marble and red or grey granite. The stone may have been quarried a distance away; hand carved with hammer and chisels, polished, and shipped by wagon. Ordering a headstone from Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward Monument Catalogs did not appear until the turn of the century, long after Pumptown ceased to be used.
In 1881 the Union Hill post office was closed and the town of Wirt was established to be near the newly built railroad. In 1882, the Wirt Cemetery (Ellston Cemetery) was opened. Inhabitants then had a burial choice. Burials in the Pumptown Cemetery were primarily from 1860-1885. By 1948, the cemetery ceased to be used.
Martin V. Brotherton and Andrew Selsor were Civil War veterans. WWI veteran Emmet Liles died in France and the family had his body brought home and buried in the Pumptown Cemetery. He was the first township soldier killed in WWI; therefore, the Ellston American Legion Post was named after Emmet Liles. The graves in the Pumptown Cemetery are marked with cement pins buried at the corner of each lot and many burials dip from deteriorated wooden coffins. The bumps and dips can be felt when pulling a wagon across the cemetery grounds.
In the 1940’s, Ike Chew, keeper of the cemetery records had a house fire and the cemetery records were burned. Then in 1973, the Union Township trustees failed to maintain the Pumptown Cemetery perimeter fence. Consequently, the renter’s cattle roamed the cemetery, toppling most of the stones. Not knowing what to do and disregarding cemetery protection laws, the trustees reasoned that few relatives were still alive, cemetery visitors were seldom, the cemetery was full and served no further community need with the active Ellston Cemetery, Pumptown cemetery records had burned in Isaac Chew’s house fire, and only veteran WPA records and census records remained. They decided that veterans’ memorials should be left intact to honor their service and match WPA records, especially the Emmet Liles family. The bodies buried would be left undisturbed. One of the trustees operated and owned his own dozer and could do the work. The trustees quietly cleared the cemetery by pushing the stones into a nearby hole and burying them, leaving the burials untouched and unmarked except for a few veteran headstones. The ground was leveled and pristinely kept mowed. Unfortunately, the trustees decisions lacked vision: the internet would evolve to connect people searching family genealogy, websites like “IA Gen Web” and “Find A Grave” would photograph and publish monuments on the internet, Iowa would enact laws to specifically protect pioneer cemeteries, and the county would establish and fund a Pioneer Cemetery Commission in 1997 to research and restore Ringgold County pioneer cemeteries.
The Pumptown Cemetery’s restoration continues. If you have information of where the Pumptown stones were buried or who was buried in the Pumptown Cemetery, please contact the Pioneer Cemetery Commission, Angie Hynek, firstname.lastname@example.org, 641-344-1681. Anonymous tips are greatly appreciated. Your information could help to honor our past.