Walnut Grove Cemetery, Boonville, Missouri
Originally titled:
"Walnut Grove Cemetery: The Outstanding Rural-Park Cemetery in a Municipality"
Chapter Six in a Doctoral Thesis by Mary Ellen Harshbarger McVicker titled
Reflections of Change: Death and Cemeteries in the Boonslick Region of Missouri
University of Missouri-Columbia, May, 1989

I. Cemeteries Located Within Municipalities

Each Boonslick town has a public cemetery, a burial ground within an incorporated town open to the public without religious connection. Some towns also contain private cemeteries. There are seven municipal cemeteries in Boone County, five municipal cemeteries in Cooper County, and seven municipal cemeteries in Howard County for a total of nineteen in the Boonslick region. Whether public or private, the cemeteries feature a east and west orientation with burials in straight rows. The Otterville Cemetery contains a small frame building with roofed veranda. Here the local cemetery association collects donations during Memorial Day weekend and the roofed veranda is utilized by people when it rains during the graveside portion of a funeral. Walnut Grove Cemetery has public restrooms and the superintendent house within the grounds. The Columbia Cemetery likewise has some sort of maintenance shed in the middle of the cemetery and the caretaker lives in a house located to the east of the entrance gate. Otherwise, the municipal cemeteries lack buildings.

These municipal cemeteries were segregated during the end of the nineteenth century and many remain segregated in 1989. Burials in the Boonslick follow the Upland South custom of being grouped by family. This means racial separation is still a reality as people desire burial near previously deceased family members. Otherwise, these municipal cemeteries follow the characteristics found in both private family and community cemeteries and in church cemeteries. The majority of burials in the late 1980's are in municipal cemeteries because all have Perpetual Funds and the public ones are tax supported.

II. Introduction to the Cemeteries of Boonville

The outstanding cemetery located within a municipality is Walnut Grove Cemetery in Boonville in Cooper County. Developed as a private, park like cemetery, in the late 1980's, this cemetery remains the major place of interment in the Boonville area and contains over 8,000 burials.1 The population of the cemetery exceeds the population of the town showing how the Boonslick has retained its rural character. Here too are stones removed from other and earlier cemeteries as families in the late nineteenth century played out the theme of status and familial groupings by having ancestors removed from country plots or the earlier Sunset Hills cemetery and reinterred in Walnut Grove.

Boonville has changed in 179 years, but once inside the gates of Walnut Grove, time stops. The hitching posts and horse watering tanks remain in place awaiting the next funeral hearse. The peonies and wild flowers bloom each spring. The attachment of the community to this cemetery is shown by the request of many patrons to be buried in the earliest portion of the grounds and their willingness to pay for that privilege.2 Although vandalism and pollution have defaced some monuments, the majority remain in excellent condition and nothing broken is allowed to remain. It is either immediately repaired or taken to the cemetery headquarters until funds can be procured for repair or replacement. Modern paved roads follow the winding course of the original, macadam roads. The grounds provide a sanctuary for wildlife not found elsewhere in the community, including the community parks which feature athletic competition rather than the quiet, contemplative nature of this cemetery.

Boonville was founded in 1810 by Hannah Cole, a widow with nine children.3 She settled on the south bluff of the Missouri River and constructed a fort in what is now the northeastern part of Boonville opposite the Boonville Correctional Center. The Boonslick region flooded with new settlers and soon Boonville was a thriving river community with a Southern orientation.4 The town of Boonville was named for the famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone, whose family operated a salt lick across the Missouri River.5 The citizens incorporated under the county government until 1839, 29 years after the town was settled. Finally, on February 8, 1839, the town was officially chartered.6

People prided themselves upon their cultural outlook and education.7 The Boonville Thespian Society and Reading Room was started in 1838, one year before the town's incorporation. On July 4, 1857, the citizens of the town dedicated Thespian Hall which built by the organization and now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a nationally significant building. This large, two story building was constructed as a theater, library, and cultural center.8 The early date of this building reflects the desire of the citizens of Boonville to be more than a frontier settlement. The construction date coincides with the establishment of Walnut Grove Cemetery and the First Missouri State Fair which was held in Boonville.

During the 1820's, the young artist, George Caleb Bingham was apprenticed to the local Methodist minister who doubled as a cabinetmaker, Justinian Williams.9 In Boonville, Bingham painted his first painting and observed a lifestyle which he employed in his later paintings, the first to accurately depict genre scenes of the Wild West, his Boonslick.10

III. Sunset Hills

Walnut Grove was not the first cemetery in Boonville. Some type of burial ground was on Seventh Street, just east of Saints Peter and Paul Parochial School in Boonville and excavation for a house basement in the late nineteenth century immediately north of the school disclosed other burials.11 In 1954, the house was demolished and an educational building constructed for the local United Church of Christ. In excavating for the foundation for this building, more burials were also uncovered. However, no records remain that mention this as a cemetery from the time of settlement.12 Harley Park near the western edge of the town contains several Indian burial mounds which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as archaeological sites.13 Speculation abounds that perhaps the graves discovered at the United Church of Christ are either graves of Native Americans who were not chieftains or the graves of slaves for whom it was not felt necessary to record the burial site.14

In any event, the first officially established cemetery is now called Sunset Hills, although the original name was the Methodist Burying Grounds.15 In February 1841, Jacob Wyan, local merchant and devout Methodist, deeded to the City of Boonville one acre of land for the sum of $5.00 for the use as a cemetery under the control of the Methodist Episcopal Church.16 Evidently, burials had begun on the land as early as 1818 so Wyan was merely making official something which had already transpired. Problems arose when it was pointed out that religious institutions, such as the Methodist church, could not own property in their own names.17 Thus, the county court assumed responsibility for the deed for the actual church building and the city acquired the cemetery.18

Sunset Hills became the secondary burial place for Boonville upon the establishment of Walnut Grove Cemetery. Sunset Hills was used primarily by freed slaves and their descendants who could not afford the higher prices of the Walnut Grove lots. The cemetery has been now closed as the City cannot determine just where burials have and have not taken place so no new lots will be sold, but burials may continue on lots already owned.19

To walk through Sunset Hills is to walk through the earliest history of the Boonslick with names of very early settlers and names of transients on their way West whose West became Boonville. Sentimental stories abound such as those of Willie, a youth who died in Boonville from the strains of pioneering and left a mother too poor to purchase a gravestone. In the case of Willie, Boonville citizens donated enough money to erect a suitable marker that says "Willie, the Littlest Stranger". Boonville monument carver Elias J. Bedwell provided the work.20

IV. Founding of Walnut Grove

In 1852, William S. Myers sold the land that was to become Walnut Grove Cemetery for $500.00.21 Three couples, Charles and Eliza Aehle, Dr. Augustus William and Margaret E. Mills Kueckelhan, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert D. Perry, purchased the four acre tract because of a grove of walnut trees on the property.22

The immediate acceptance of Walnut Grove by the surrounding property owners who moved deceased family members to this newly established cemetery shows that the three families obviously had more in mind from the beginning than a mere cemetery when establishing Walnut Grove. The site itself is beautiful and could be favorably compared to Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis and other rural, park-like cemeteries of the East, but there were other groves of trees on the Boonville bluff and Sunset Hills was already established and contained hilly land which could have been landscaped to fit all the requirements of a rural park-like cemetery.

V. The First Missouri State Fair — David Barton

The grove of walnut trees that formed the nucleus of Walnut Grove Cemetery proves the key to the mystery. The grove was located immediately south of the site of the first State Fair in Missouri which was held in the fall of 1853; plans were already underway when the three families purchased the ground. The fairgrounds were on the site of Hannah Cole's fort, the original area of settlement in 1810. Rural, park-like cemeteries were the biggest tourist attraction on the East coast and the three families hoped to have a similar attraction in Boonville. Crowds to the first State Fair exceeded expectations and newspaper accounts tell of hastily constructed wooden bleachers for the thoroughbred horse races, collapsing with the weight of all the people.23

The State Fair met in Boonville for only four years before regional fairs undercut attendance. The local organization, the Missouri State Agricultural Society, eventually went bankrupt.24 By this time, however, Walnut Grove Cemetery was firmly established, although the anticipated tourist trade to the cemetery never materialized, either from the State Fair or the local population bringing friends to the cemetery grounds.

The cultural milieu of this era and the effect of Romanticism combined with boosterism can best be shown by what happened to the grave of David Barton. David Barton was chairman of the State Constitutional Convention which wrote the Constitution for Missouri to be admitted to the Union; the resulting document was called the "Barton Constitution." He was well educated (an elementary school in Boonville in Cooper County is named for him) and a Circuit Judge for the Northern District of the Missouri Territory. He also served as Attorney General for the Missouri Territory. Following statehood, he served as the one of the first two U.S. Senator from Missouri, along with Thomas Hart Benton.

Disagreements between the two Senators helped cause Barton's defeat in 1831 and he returned to the Boonslick. By 1836 he was deathly ill (from the effects of too much "wine, women, and song" according to local tradition) and found himself under the protection of Dr. William and Mary Gibson. The nature of his illness, however, was not allowed to obscure his accomplishments. When he finally died in 1837, penniless and without family, the Gibsons' led a drive to have a suitable gravestone erected over his grave in Sunset Hills. This was accomplished and all of Barton's credentials were embellished on the four sides of this obelisk 25.

In 1853, Barton had been dead for 15 years, but was still considered an important figure in the region whose grave would be a tourist attraction. With tourism expected to be generated by the adjacent State Fair, the remains of David Barton were moved in March 1853 from Sunset Hills to the circular lot at the center of the newly established Walnut Grove. The Columbia Statesman observed that the reinterment would "point the stranger and future generations to the place where reposes the remains of one of the great men of our own State and Country...one who might have under other and more favorable circumstances, filled the world with his fame, and brought around his tomb in all time to come myriads of his countrymen to do reverence to the memory of departed worth."26

The group undertaking this project decided that a fifteen-year-old obelisk contributed by community generosity was not worthy of such a potentially important tourist site. Political strings were pulled. On December 8, 1855, the Missouri legislature authorized $400 to carve a new marble gravestone and build an iron fence around the circular lot where Barton was buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery.27 The inscription on the new stone repeated exactly the inscription on the earlier gravestone, but the new obelisk was about twenty feet tall, of the purest marble, ornamented by an intricately carved torch shown being extinguished by being turned upside down. It was intended to symbolize how the death of Barton caused knowledge to be extinguished.

This theme had already been extensively used in the St. Louis Cemetery II in New Orleans and originated with tombs from the Parisan cemetery of Pere La Chaise. The tomb of Jean Alex. Gervais Hennecart in Pere La Chaise also used this motif and dates to before 1833.28 Since there was constant steamboat traffic with New Orleans, the use of this motif is not surprising. R. D. Perry, Benjamin Tompkins, and A. W. Simpson were appointed commissioners to "superintend the said work and to cause said iron railing to be put up."29 Benjamin Tompkins was a lawyer and the local State Representative. A. W. Simpson was an ardent member of the local pro-slavery faction. R. D. Perry was one of the three founders of Walnut Grove Cemetery.30 Thus the political maneuvering behind the second gravestone can be inferred from these choices.

The first gravestone remained in Sunset Hills until 1899, after the University of Missouri acquired the original gravestone of Thomas Jefferson. The 1837 Barton stone was donated to the University as a visible reminder of another person interested in Missouri education. Today it is placed alone on the north side of Jesse Hall on the Francis Quadrangle at the University of Missouri. The Thomas Jefferson gravestone has been moved to a more prominent spot along the eastern walkway of the quadrangle.

The original lots on what is now the northeastern part of Walnut Grove radiated out from the central, round Barton lot to form a square. The lots were sold either for four, eight or sixteen burials and were laid in the more traditional east and west row formation of the other local, private burial grounds of the Boonslick. Variation was allowed within an individual lot which satisfied the customer bent on tradition as well as the patron who desired the Romantic touch. Cedars, peonies, violets, iris and hardwood trees from the area provided the landscaping materials. As a result, Walnut Grove does not visually appear to be lined up in rows.

During the War Between the States, the first battle west of the Mississippi occurred at Boonville and several times throughout the course of the war years, forces from both side tramped through Boonville. Some gravestones were tall and from their tops the entire community could be surveyed. Private memoirs mention Walnut Grove as both a hiding place where troops could crouch behind stones and as a place where lookouts could watch for approaching soldiers.31

VI. The Incorporation and 1881 Addition to Walnut Grove

The three families who began the cemetery were either headed by doctors or involved in drugstores. In either case, death was a prominent part of their business life. By 1881 only Charles and Eliza Aehle lived in Boonville. The Aehles sold some lots from $10 to $15 and gave away others to ministers and people who were deemed morally worthy of a Christian burial, but lacked the necessary funds.32 During the 29 years from 1852 to 1881, $4746.50 was generated in income for Walnut Grove and $4725.43 was expended so that by 1881 only $21.07 remained in the account.33

In 1880, Charles C. Bell returned to Boonville. Bell was the son of German immigrants and had been a Unionist during the war. At the close of hostilities, he moved to Texas. Returning to his hometown in 1880, he established Bell Fruit Farms and had a crew of men available for manual labor.34 Bell's parents were buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery and one of his first deeds was to travel to the cemetery and pay his respects. Bell was appalled to find livestock running through the cemetery and clear evidence that a hog had been rooting on his mother's grave. Spurred by this desecration, he contacted Charles and Eliza Aehle and found the elderly couple getting along with only the above cited funds to operate the entire cemetery. Realizing any type of hard, physical work was beyond their capabilities, Bell agreed to bring the cemetery into proper physical shape on the condition that the Aehles sell the cemetery to a not-for-profit corporation formed to oversee and maintain the grounds.35

The elderly Aehles readily agreed, apparently delighted that someone younger was expressing an interest in the cemetery. Realizing that nothing could be undertaken without the necessary funds, C. C. Bell then contacted the bankrupt and defunct Missouri State Agricultural Society, the organization which still owned by land used by the State Fair, about the purchase of four acres of land immediately adjacent to the west of the cemetery. The plan was to sell lots in these four acres and the proceeds would be used for cemetery repair. After much maneuvering and legalities, the transactions were completed. C. C. Bell obtained 3.39 acres for Walnut Grove Cemetery, the widowed Mary Gay Wyan Nelson, whose farm joined the cemetery, added 88/100 acres to her property, and the rest of the State Fairground property was sold at auction at the Cooper County Courthouse door. The defunct Agricultural society made enough money to pay off all their debts.36 Everybody came out a winner.

Bell thus obtained the acreage necessary to restore Walnut Grove to financial health with the intent to have the new cemetery board reimburse him for his expenses at the appropriate time when there was enough cash. The only obstacle was that the land purchased by Bell had been the southern end of a mile long thoroughbred horse racing track for the State Fair and the ground contained a steep slope. Bell spent 47 days filling in the track and pulling out diseased walnut trees. His memoirs, now in the Walnut Grove Cemetery Archives, do not state if he did all the work by himself or if (more likely) he used some of the workmen from his fruit farm. He never asked for nor received any compensation for this effort, but eventually was repaid only the amount of the purchase price of the land, a little over one thousand dollars.

After the leveling was completed, the new addition was surveyed for lots. Samuel Wooldridge, an interested Boonville citizen, obtained and planted cypress trees on both sides of the new main roadway to form two imposing arched passageways into the newly landscaped grounds.37 Cypress trees were the symbol of mourning to the Ancient Greeks so the association of this symbolism is too coincidental to be an accident. Evidently Bell and Wooldridge designed this 1881 addition as well as physically doing the work on the grounds.

Once all was finished, Bell called a public meeting at the office of John Cosgrove, a Boonville lawyer who later became a U.S. Representative. There the men of Boonville formed a board to incorporate. Election of officers immediately followed and to no one's surprise, C. C. Bell was included among the chosen as was Charles Aehle. Others selected were: John Cosgrove, A. H. Sauter, G. B. Harper, Speed Stephens, J. F. Gmelich, John E. Thro and S. W. Ravenel.38 S. W. Ravenel was the editor of the local newspaper and his article on the new incorporation and its goals summed up the community sentiment: "Let all our citizens lend the aid and encouragement that will make Walnut Grove be to Boonville what Belle Fontaine is to St. Louis, Bonaventure to Savannah and Greenwood to New York."39 The choice of cemeteries for comparison shows that Ravenel was familiar with other great rural, park-like cemeteries of the day.

The newly elected Board immediately applied for a charter of incorporation, which was granted on July 13, 1881, by the Secretary of State, Michael McGrath.40 It was May 1882, however, before all the technicalities and legalities had been worked out and control of the land passed to the Board of Directors. Charles and Eliza Aehle then gave all the money left in the old account to the new Board.41

Realizing that the grounds needed someone there at all hours for security purposes, the next project undertaken was to construct an appropriate "neat cottage" for the sexton and his family who were required to live on the premises but were not charged any rent.42 The design and construction of this cottage is not mentioned in the Board minutes except for the reference that it was to be built. This Gothic Revival cottage fit into the overall cemetery landscape, with pointed windows, upright clapboarding, Gothic mouldings, and an arched front entrance. Victorian jigsaw bargeboards help to confirm the later date.

Even though the cemetery had just doubled in size, the Board decided to embark upon more expansion and purchased one acre of land adjoining the south side of the cemetery from A. A. Howard and Charles Stretz in 1884. This addition was platted in the 1902 Kessler plan.

By 1900, more land was needed as the cemetery became the major burial ground of the community, with an associated high status. Sunset Hills gradually became the burial place of African Americans and impoverished whites. A white person with pretensions to gentility bought a lot in Walnut Grove, which was viewed as the ideal, being ablaze with riotous foliage in the fall and lovely flowers in the spring. Officially, Walnut Grove was not segregated, but the prices for lots were beyond the reach of African Americans of Victorian times.

In 1892, an endowment fund was established for the upkeep of the cemetery and its monuments.43 With the establishment of such a system, the cemetery immediately underwent a rapid increase in the number of burials as families exhumed relatives buried earlier in other cemeteries that were without this protection, and had them reintered in Walnut Grove. Magazine articles written predominantly to a female audience stressed romantic ideas about death and details of what was proper to continue respect for the deceased.44 Just as families would be together spiritually in Heaven, so they ought to be together physically in the cemetery. The rapid increase in burials poured enough money into the endowment fund so that in 1905, a separate Perpetual Care Fund was established and continues to the present.45

VII. George Kessler and the 1902 Plan

The Board of Directors purchased four more acres on the south side of the cemetery from Charles Stretz on April 15, 1901, and set about to form a master landscape plan. On September 11, 1901, T. A. Johnson, President of the Walnut Grove Cemetery Board and also the President of Kemper Military School in Boonville, was authorized to employ George Kessler, a landscape architect, to coordinate the three distinct and different sections of the cemetery into one master plan.46

George Kessler was the foremost landscape architect of the period in the Missouri area. A native of Germany, in 1865 Kessler was brought to Dallas, Texas, by his parents as a child. His father, Edward Kessler, who had gone bankrupt in Germany, died soon after the family arrived in Dallas. Left a widow, Antoine Kessler determined to educate George in a profession that combined a practical element with his artistic temperament. She returned with him to Germany, determined that landscape architecture was the perfect profession for George. He was sent to school in Germany and then spent a year traveling and studying civic design from Paris to Moscow with a tutor. By 1882 when he was twenty, he had returned to the United States and went to work for Frederick Law Olmstead in New York City. Olmstead liked Kessler's work and wanted to keep him, but friends found Kessler a job as Superintendent of Parks for a little railroad called the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf.47

His first job for the railroad was modeling a railroad excursion park from nondescript land near Merriam, Kansas. Evidently, Kessler worked equally well over a flower bed or a drafting table, confirming his mother's observations about his temperament. Because he had the advantage of European education as well as his years spent in the United States and his work in New York City with Olmstead, he blended all elements of design together to form his own style. By 1887, Kessler was designing houses in Kansas City for some of the most important and influential families of the city. His work in the exclusive residential sections brought him to the attention of W. R. Nelson, editor of the Kansas City Star. Nelson helped launch him to fame developing the imposing boulevard system of Kansas City beginning in 1893, the same year as the Columbian Exposition in Chicago which dramatized the urban planning. Landscape architects such as Kessler seized the moment to make the case for parks and boulevards to improve the appearance of cities.

In 1900 George Kessler married Ida Grant Field of Kansas City and formed the firm George E. Kessler and Company.48 In 1904, Kessler became landscape architect to the St. Louis Worlds Fair and after the fair he was the director of the exposition site.49 In 1921, the University of Missouri conferred an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Laws, upon him. He died in April 1923.50

He was just coming into prominence in 1901 with the Chicago Exposition in the past and the St. Louis Worlds' Fair in the future. That critical year the Board of Walnut Grove contacted him about working in the cemetery. No record has come to light of how his name was obtained or who recommended him. Perhaps his reputation alone brought him to Board attention. In 1891 Kessler had planned Missouri Valley College at Marshall in adjoining Saline County.51 Perhaps Johnson (who also was involved in higher education) heard about him from that project.

However he came to the attention of the Walnut Grove Cemetery Board, George Kessler set to work in Walnut Grove and on January 17, 1902, the Board was presented a master plan. Meeting at Sombart Mill on the south bank of the Missouri River (the local M.F. A. Elevator in 1989), the Board reviewed the proposed plan. C. A. Sombart was long time secretary of the Board and since there was no office at the cemetery, it is probable that all the records were kept at Sombart Mill at that time.52 After discussing the plan, W. M. Williams moved for acceptance with two alterations, an entrance on the east side (which was done) and walks through some of the lots. Even though no master plan still exists on paper from Kessler, the Board minutes reveal that Walnut Grove Cemetery followed the master plan exactly as presented with the two additions.

The Board then unaminously approved the plan and within a week bids were let for moving 6,000 yards of earth for the landscaping project. The lowest bid was 13 cents/cubic yard with a total bill of $1,365.00. By the May 7, 1902, meeting of the Board, the work was done except for sowing grass and graveling the walks.53 The lots Kessler designed are preceded by the Letter A before their numbers, making it easy to find his work. Lots 1 through 245 are the original 1852 portion of the cemetery designed by the three founding families. Lots 246 through 469 are the 1880 addition designed by C. C. Bell and Samuel Wooldridge. Lots 474 through 557 and lots 606 and 610 represent the land purchased in 1901. Looking at the Kessler plan, it is easy to see that no burials had occurred in the very southern portion of the cemetery since Kessler re-arranged some of these lots and there are gaps in the numbering system.

Working within the concept already established in the romantic, rural park-like section, Kessler kept most of the lots square with east and west burial orientation. He then utilized the sweeping boulevard concept which had worked so well in Kansas City. Upon entering the main gate at the north, the road divides at a T intersection and makes a 90 degree turn toward the south in both directions. The western road then made a circle near the south terminus before sweeping back east and to the gate. Side roads project from the eastern road forming a triangular and a circular area. As changed by the Board, the road then exits out the east side from the circular area which contained a fountain. Walks interspersed throughout the cemetery connected the old and new section into one visually compact whole.

The entire plan was so successful that in 1989 it is impossible to tell from purely visual examination where the older section joins the Kessler addition. At the March 24, 1905, Board meeting, authorization was given for the expenditure of $218.25 for 212 feet 6 inches of iron fence from the E. T. Barnum Iron Works of Detroit, Michigan.

The Board also authorized $15 to print 200 booklets explaining the cemetery.54 Extant penny postcards show views of the statuary area inside the front gate.55

Ever in a mood for expansion, in 1907 the Board purchased another 1.52 acres from Charles Stretz. Additional acreage has been purchased since, so that the cemetery presently contains 21.2 acres.56

Before World War I, Walnut Grove Cemetery underwent the construction of three subterranean family mausolea similar in design and scale to those in other great Victorian cemeteries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The three are: the Willard vault, the Leonard vault, and the Crow vault. The Leonard family built Ravenswood, a huge eclectic mansion twelve miles south of Boonville, and there was a family cemetery on the property. The Willard daughter married the Leonard son. The search for status and the Victorian necessity of material security made burial in town more desirable than on the farm.

The third vault was built by Judge Ed Crow of St. Louis, a former attorney general of Missouri. Not a Boonville native, he did descend from some of the old Boonville families and evidently felt great affection for the area and Walnut Grove Cemetery. The vault was 16 feet square with an 8 foot ceiling and had 20 crypts. A stairway led from the door of the vault to ground level and large bronze doors closed the structure at the end of the stairway. Lined with foot thick Carthage stone, and with concrete walls also a foot thick, this vault was constructed to last.57 Soon after its completion, Judge Crow died and was buried inside. The other two vaults did not contain stairways, but had openings where the caskets were lowered into the interior.

As the years passed, the stairs in the Crow vault became in need of repair, above and beyond normal maintenance. About World War II, the Cemetery Board finally obtained permission from the family to fill the vault with sand because no other family member expressed a desire to be buried in Boonville and maintenance costs were draining the Perpetual Fund. On the day the vault was to be filled, a family member arrived in the cemetery with the corpse of an infant in her car. Dead over 20 years, this baby had been kept in cold storage in a funeral home. On this last day possible for a burial, the baby was placed in the Crow vault as well and the entire vault was filled and the ground leveled so that no trace is visible.58

These grisly details are mentioned here because mausoleums were obviously social symbols which only the very richest people invested in; none of the three families who constructed the mausoleums actually lived within the incorporated limits of Boonville. Two of the three vaults were not built by town natives, but by family members who lived elsewhere and wanted to be buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery. A mausoleum in Walnut Grove cost less to construct than a mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis and by returning back to the town of the family and/or their own nativity, people could display their sense of noblesse oblige. No doubt another reason for their limited number was that water proved to be an almost immediate problem and vaults were soon discovered to be unsatisfactory.59 Nobody else wanted to invest such money in vaults which could not be kept dry.

The lovely, landscaped grounds of Walnut Grove Cemetery attracted people to desire to return to Boonville for burial. One of the main reasons for the remarkable continuity of the cemetery were the sextons (now called superintendents). Charles and Eliza Aehle cared for the grounds for over 29 years and they were followed by S. W. Ravenel and then William Mittelbach as secretaries who were also responsible for the grounds. Mittelbach served in that capacity for over twenty years. Both men took great personal interest in the plantings and landscaping of the cemetery. Of course, sextons were hired for the physical labor. When Mittelbach died and was buried in the western corner of the cemetery in what was then a quiet nook, the Board paid for his gravestone. It doubles as a bird bath, an appropriate memorial to a person interested in the grounds and the animals living there. The paved road constructed in 1946 now runs alongside the bird bath so it is not in as quiet an area as formerly although the bowl still contains water.

The cemetery Board was fortunate to find the Goodman family to fill the role of sexton in the late nineteenth century. Beginning on April 1, 1910, the sexton was paid a salary. Prior to this date the sexton obtained his pay through the various fees for the services he provided. All fees for digging graves, cutting grass, and building the monument foundations went directly to him. In addition, a small stipend was paid by the Board for incidentals.60 The end result was that potential areas of conflict of interest existed. Supervising the work on the grounds obviously was a full time job and in 1914, Lawrence Geiger was hired in that capacity.

The house constructed in 1883 was rapidly outgrown and the land needed in the cemetery for lots. In 1918 a new bungalow was constructed at the cost of $4,500 to the west of the original house, which was then demolished61. In 1940, the elder Geiger was succeeded by his son, Bob, who remained as superintendent until his retirement in 1979. He was paid $100 a month and supplemented his income by selling monuments.62 The tradition of one family being responsible for such a long period of time is identical to the Hotchkiss family at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. This continuity accounted for much of the success of both places.

Mr. and Mrs. Bob Geiger were instrumental in maintaining the superb landscaping of the grounds and they scoured the surrounding countryside for flowering trees and shrubbery. A likely candidate was marked and sometimes watched for up to a year before being moved to Walnut Grove to insure that it had lovely foliage or large flowers. The Geigers also planted large canna beds on the north slope of the cemetery outside the iron fence. Their intent was to make the cemetery a place of beauty and peace, a park where fear was banished and love remained.63

VIII. Post-World War II

By 1946 the cypress trees planted by Samuel Wooldridge had grown to such a large size that mechanized hearses could not make the 90 degree turn at the entrance. The Board of Directors decided that a new paved road along the western side would solve the problem without disturbing the grounds. This area was where the first house stood and was still empty of graves. Hurst John, architect from Columbia, Missouri, designed the roadway renovation and upon his suggestion the fountain along the east fence was removed and the lot sold for burials.

The Board insisted upon the use of vaults beginning in 1956 to help keep the grounds smooth, without depressions, to facilitate mowing and foot traffic. Before this time, vaulting had been optional. Sometimes wooden posts were used to line the grave.64 A size limit was also placed on monuments when it became obvious that older stones would need conservation work in the future and that the cemetery board would have to keep the promise of perpetual care. Pollution, acid rain, and large trucks on the adjacent street, were not envisioned when the Perpetual Fund was established. Money left in the will of George Sombart (son of the Sombart Mill family who were so active in the cemetery) provided modern, new restrooms on the grounds as his way of saying thanks for being sheltered during a deluge in the superintendent's house while awaiting a funeral cortege. John Jay Bell II, an architect and grandson of C. C. Bell who worked so hard for incorporation back in 1881, designed the facility.65 Since 1985, golf carts have been available to transport visitors around the grounds, especially on Memorial Day Weekend when hundreds return to their ancestral home.66

Walnut Grove stands as the high point of cemetery development in the Boonslick. Other cemeteries in Missouri and the Midwest were no doubt patterned and modeled after the great Eastern romantic rural, park-like cemeteries. Old photographs and interviews reveal that Walnut Grove Cemetery was able to keep the intent and spirit while other cemeteries were forced to take, or sought, different paths. Much credit for the beautiful grounds must go to a determined Board of Directors. For example, J. F. Gmelich, a local jeweler, was on the original board. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, A. Schmidt, who was succeeded by his son, who was succeeded by his son-in-law, Charles Malone, a present Board member.67 The relationship has descended through the female side of the family, but only men have been on the Board. The Geiger family for forty years watched over the grounds with such loving care and supervision that the cemetery acquired the local nickname of "Geiger's."68

Like the Hotchkiss family at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, they were the ones who left supper on the stove to take a visitor through the grounds. They lived on one income plus what they could make selling gravestones because the Board did not want Mrs. Geiger to work elsewhere, but would not pay her a salary from the cemetery.69 The flowers and other labor intensive plantings were gradually discontinued as the Geigers aged and the youth left the area for employment elsewhere, making it impossible to find help.70 The present superintendent, John Hulbert, supervises a crew of five men who constantly work to maintain the cemetery which averages approximately three burials per week. Hence, there is more and more work required in the upkeep of the grounds.

Still, over 200 trees grace the grounds and the fall foliage contains every color possible. Flowering shrubbery remains in place as do perennials and wildflowers. The grounds are a haven for wildlife such as birds, rabbits, and squirrels. Walnut Grove still serves its Romantic function 138 years after its founding. Few other places in the Boonslick remain so intact.


  1. Records in the office of Walnut Grove Cemetery, Boonville, Missouri.
  2. Interview with Frank Thacher, whose father, Berry Thacher, was buried in the oldest section in 1986. A mortician, Berry Thacher loved the wooded section of the cemetery.
  3. Dyer, Robert L., Boonville, An Illustrated History, (Boonville, Missouri: Pekitanoui Publications, 1987), p. 12.
  4. Lutz, Paul and Utermoehlen, Ralph, Mid-Missouri Regional Profile, (Columbia, Missouri: Missouri Extension Division, 1973), p. 6.
  5. Information from brochure given out at Boone's (Salt) Lick State Park, near Boonsboro, Howard County, Missouri.
  6. Minutes from the Missouri Legislature for February 8, 1839, now on file in the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City, Missouri.
  7. Dyer, p. 61.
  8. 1989 Missouri State Highway Map, unveiled at Sesquicentennial ceremony on February 8, 1989, in Boonville City Hall.
  9. Bloch, E, Maurice, George Caleb Bingham, The Evolution of an Artist, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 15.
  10. Ibid, p. 18.
  11. Interview in June 1986 with Wade Davis, Boonville realtor, whose grandparents built the house and who was involved in selling the land to the United Church of Christ.
  12. Typewritten manuscript prepared by Judge Roy Williams of Boonville in the Western Manuscript Historical Collection at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
  13. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the Harley Park Burial Mounds.
  14. Judge Roy Williams, typed manuscript.
  15. City Council Minute Book for Boonville from 1841 to 1858 now in the Archives of the Friends of Historic Boonville in Boonville, Missouri
  16. Recorded in Cooper County Courthouse, Boonville, Missouri in Recorder Office.
  17. Dyer, p. 36.
  18. Records at the Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church in Boonville, Missouri. Named for Margaret Jane Wyan Russell Nelson, the honored woman was the daughter of Jacob and Nancy Shanks Wyan.
  19. Interview with John Webster, Boonville Parks Director who has charge of Sunset Hills Cemetery, on November 12, 1988.
  20. Dyer, p. 100.
  21. Abstract to Walnut Grove Cemetery in bank lock box at United Missouri Bank in Boonville, Missouri.
  22. Historical Sketch of Walnut Grove Cemetery, (no publisher or town given, 1910), p. 1.
  23. Columbia Statesman, September 1853, Columbia, Missouri. Now on file in State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.
  24. Abstract to Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  25. Melton, E. J., History of Cooper County, Missouri (Columbia, Missouri: E. W. Stephens Publishing Company, 1937), p. 212.
  26. Columbia Statesman, March 10, 1853, Columbia, Missouri. Now on file in State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.
  27. Local Laws and Private Acts of the State of Missouri, 18th General Assembly, 1856, p. 365.
  28. Meyer, Richard, editor, Cemeteries and Gravemarkers, Voices of American Culture, (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), p. 147.
  29. Local Laws and Private Acts, p. 365.
  30. Records in the Walnut Grove Cemetery office in Walnut Grove Cemetery in Boonville, Missouri.
  31. McDaniel, Lyn, editor, Bicentennial Boonslick History, Boonville: Boonslick Historical Society, 1976), p. 93.
  32. Records of Walnut Grove Cemetery now in the lock box at United Missouri Bank in Boonville, Missouri.
  33. Receipts from Charles and Eliza Aehle now in lock box for Walnut Grove Cemetery at United Missouri Bank in Boonville, Missouri.
  34. Records of Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Abstract of Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  37. Records of Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ravenel, S. W., Boonville Weekly Advertiser, (Boonville, Mo.: March 18, 1881), p. 1.
  40. Records of Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Interview with Helen Goodman, daughter-in-law of the Goodman family who lived in the house. The interview was conducted on March 20, 1989.
  43. Historical Sketch of Walnut Grove Cemetery, p. 2.
  44. Stannard, David E., editor, Death in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975) p. 55.
  45. Historical Sketch of Walnut Grove, p. 6.
  46. Minutes of Walnut Grove Cemetery for September 11, 1901.
  47. Wilson, William Henry, The City Beautiful Movement in Kansas City, 1872-1914, (Columbia, Missouri: Doctoral Dissertation, 1962), p. 81.
  48. Centennial History of Missouri, (St. Louis: S. J. Clarks Publishing Co., 1921), p. 612.
  49. The Book of St. Louisans, (St. Louis: The St. Louis Republic, 1912), p. 332.
  50. Bryan, John A., editor and compiler, Missouri's Contribution to American Architecture, (St. Louis: St. Louis Architectural Club, 1928), p. 183.
  51. Hamilton, Jean Tyree, Baity Hall, Missouri Valley College Nomination Form to the National Register of Historic Places. Original on file at State Office of Historic Preservation in Jefferson City, Missouri.
  52. Records at Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  53. Minutes of Walnut Grove Cemetery Board for May 7, 1902, on file at Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  54. Ibid, March 24, 1905.
  55. Archives of the Friends of Historic Boonville.
  56. Abstract of Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  57. Blackwater News, quoted from Boonville Republican, February 19, 1915, p. 2, col. 4.
  58. Interview with Mr. and Mrs. Bob Geiger, retired superintendent of Walnut Grove Cemetery and spouse in Boonville, Missouri, on February 13, 1989.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Historical Sketch of Walnut Grove Cemetery, p. 7.
  61. Records at Walnut Grove Cemetery.
  62. Interview with Mr. and Mrs. Bob Geiger.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Interview with Harry Walton on August 12, 1987. He is the source of information about the wooden posts lining the graves. Harry Walton was the son of the Boonville Episcopalian minister. When Harry was six (1913) his father died and was buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery. Harry's parents were natives of England and were in Boonville as a missionary assignment so Harry returned overseas with his mother and had never been back to Boonville. Being in poor health and leaving a bedfast wife in England, he returned to Boonville accompanied by a nurse to see his father's grave one more time. Maryellen McVicker interviewed him about his memories from his perspective. Considering he was in his eighties and left at age six, what he remembered was remarkable. He described in detail his father's funeral since it made such an impression on him. The actual grave was not marked and he purchased a gravestone from Bob Geiger. Returning home to England, he died six months later. His nurse wrote that he felt free to die after he had marked his father's grave; he considered it the last item that needed his attention.
  65. Interview with Mr. and Mrs. Bob Geiger.
  66. Interview with Hampton Tisdale, president of Walnut Grove Cemetery Association, on February 2, 1986.
  67. Interview with Gertrude Schmidt Malone in December 1987.
  68. Interview with Bob Herfurth, 1989 President of Walnut Grove Cemetery Association, in August 1986.
  69. Interview with Mr. and Mrs. Bob Geiger.
  70. Ibid.

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Last Updated 16 August 2017