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New signs highlight historic figures buried in Keokuk cemetery

Will Buss

Volunteers are posting signs throughout the 100-acre Oakland Cemetery in Keokuk to note the historic figures buried there.

“We tried to just kind of include some folks that maybe had been forgotten along the way so that we could bring their history back to light and really kind of get their names put back out there so that their story wasn't forgotten,” said Angela Gates, President of the Lee County Iowa Historical Society.

The group raised money and received two grants to purchase and design the vinyl signage.

Gates said including a brief written biography of each historic figure would have required too much writing for the signs.

So instead, each sign includes a number and a QR code that visitors can scan to learn more about these distinguished people from the past.

“We want to respect the dead,” Gates said. “We also want to respect the living who are grieving the loss of a loved one, so we wanted the signs to be less obtrusive.”

60 politicians, military officers, business leaders, artists, and athletes will have their lives chronicled through the program.

They include:

  • Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, who moved to Keokuk in 1850 and was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Miller remained on the nation’s highest court for the next 28 years.
  • Samuel Curtis, who served as mayor of Keokuk and a member of Congress. Curtis was also the first Major General from Iowa during the American Civil War, and was a hero of the Battle of Pea Ridge.
  • Several Catholic nuns who served at the Estes House Hospital in Keokuk, where wounded soldiers were treated during the Civil War.
  • Accomplished golfer Ann Britton Davis, who was born and raised in Keokuk.
  • Ralph Bell, who was born in Kahoka, Missouri and played professional baseball in Burlington, Iowa and then for a short time with the Chicago White Sox.
  • Willie “Midnight” Richardson, whose career as an overnight porter at the Keokuk Union Depot spanned 45 years between 1892 and 1937.

Gates said the historical society has yet to locate a grave marker for Richardson and seven others listed as buried in the cemetery. Work continues to make sure all of the grave markers are found before a sign is posted.
Oakland Cemetery opened in 1851 and consists of approximately 75,000 monuments among the 80,000 people who are buried there.

The historical society will also make available hard copies for visitors so that they can learn more about the noteworthy people buried at Oakland Cemetery.

“We're going to have maps and text prints of the stories available at the cemetery that folks can just pick up there and have a physical copy,” Gates said.

“We're going to work on getting a little box, kind of a thing like the little free library size, kind of just a brochure stand. We're going to have one of those out there.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.