Webster City’s history carved in stone

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser

When the waters of the Boone River were high, townsfolk could not conveniently access the city cemetery on the north side of the river. The last burial in north cemetery required the use of boats and ladders to lay a small child to rest. City residents lobbied for a more serene and respectful final resting place.

It was a this concern that precipitated the Home Cemetery Association, led by Kendall Young, to buy five acres of land from Jacob M. Funk on the southwest edge of Webster City. Overlooking Brewer Creek, the serene setting cost $65 per acre in 1865.

There was a Ladies Cemetery Association which held socials and events to fund a fence around the area. The grounds were landscaped with tree plantings. Architectural plans were made designating plots and roads. Everyone took pride in the city’s new burial spot.

The original five acres was gradually expanded and turned over to the City for administration and care. And sometime between 1865 and 1907, the beautiful, restful grounds became known as Graceland cemetery.

Marble was the most popular stone for a marker until the late 1870s. As European stonecutters brought their skills to America, granite, which was a much more durable stone, began appearing in cemeteries.

When the elaborate granite Civil War monuments were erected on the battlefields to commemorate military leaders and state regiments, the demand for embellished, large tombstones grew. In this era, it was deemed proper for families to select a cemetery monument commensurate with their social and financial status.

Henry R. Dodge formed a granite and marble monument partnership with J. A. Viquesney in Webster City in 1879. In 1880, George W. Baker bought out Viquesney and the company became known as Dodge & Baker. Their business, first housed in a wooden building, was located at 518 Second Street, just a few blocks from the Illinois Central and Chicago and Northwestern railroad depots. The wooden building was replaced with a two-story brick structure in 1904 which served the company until they moved to a location across from Graceland cemetery in 1934.

Granite slabs were shipped by rail to Webster City from all over the country. Encased in their wooden shipping crates, the stone would have been hauled to the firm’s Second Street location for carving or directly to the cemetery for installation.

Early day carving was by hand. As technology improved, the firm switched to an air hammer and then sandblasting to carve names into the stones.

Graceland cemetery has several impressive granite monuments honoring many of the city’s leaders and benefactors. They are grouped on a large knoll on the east edge of Graceland. City newspapers report that most of them were erected and placed by the Dodge and Baker firm.

Sweeney monument

One of the earliest and largest granite monuments is for Michael Sweeney, an Irish immigrant who came to Webster City in 1855. He was a member of the Spirit Lake Rescue march in 1857. He prospered, first as a laborer, then as a businessman. Sweeney, a bachelor, died suddenly in May of 1888, leaving no will. His affairs were administered by the Court, which allowed $5,000 for funeral expenses and a suitable monument. More than likely, his tombstone was erected in late 1889 or early 1890 when the estate was settled.

Jacob M. Funk must have liked the Sweeney stone, as the Webster City Tribune reported on September 5, 1890 that he had contracted with Dodge & Baker to erect a monument on the Funk Brothers plot at a cost of $2,500. It was to be the same size as the Sweeney stone at the base, but four feet higher. On August 26, 1891 the Freeman reported that Dodge & Baker had just placed the Funk stone in the cemetery. They described the granite monument as being “seventeen feet in height, weighing forty thousand pounds and measuring six feet and six inches at the base.” The article further editorialized, “This fully demonstrates that there is no need of sending abroad for this kind of work, but that it is better policy to patronize home.”

In their April 6, 1898 edition the Tribune reported that Dodge & Baker “are today erecting the monument which is to mark the last resting place of the late Kendall Young.” Young died in 1896. The report further stated the monument arrived “yesterday from the quarry at Westerly, Rhode Island and weighs 30,000 pounds. It is made of the fine Westerly granite, the same as the Michael Sweeney monument, and is of the sarcophagus style, elaborate in carving and unpolished.” The quick turnaround of arrival and placement may suggest the stone was carved and lettered at one of the Rhode Island quarry stone shops.

Willson stone arrives

The Webster City Tribune’s August 23, 1901 commented on the arrival of the Walter C. Willson stone stating it was manufactured from Quincy, Mass. granite and was highly polished. The Trib further reported that the base was eleven feet four inches long and the weight, including a second base and a dye, totaled 20 tons. The Wilson monument was” purchased through the firm of Dodge & Baker and the difficult task of setting it up was accomplished without accident or the slightest injury to the stone.”

In the same area are the large monuments of Mansfield, Jones, Brandrup, Worthington, Brennecke, Kamrar, Chase and Treat families dating from the early 1900s.

While there are no local accounts of how these large stones were moved in the early days, historical records of the granite quarries show the stones being transported by wagons and horses. Setting the stones would have required several workers using block and tackle on some sort of derrick.

A circus monument

Elsewhere in Graceland is the circus monument. James Richardson, an employee of the Ringling Brothers show performing in Webster City, was shot and killed by a local resident on June 23, 1888. Richardson, known professionally as Monsieur Dialo, was buried here. A month before the Ringling Brothers circus returned to Webster City in 1893, their advance agent ordered a monument for Richardson from Baker & Dodge for $175. It was erected prior to the circus’ arrival and on June 10, 1893 circus performers and the circus band dedicated the monument at the cemetery. It is reported that Henry Dodge received payment for the stone on the circus grounds later that evening. The fee was paid in silver.

As you visit the 148-year-old Graceland cemetery this month, gaze at the stones and monuments nestled in the green landscape. They record the history of our town.