Thursday, August 16, 2012

The unique history of the Ash Grove Cemetery

by David Burton
Written 1983 for Local History Class
Ash Grove High School
Cemeteries, a very common sight in the Ozarks, often slip by with the landscape as we drive past. Many people consider a cemetery only a symbol of death with no value to the living. Those of us who choose to accept them in a more realistic manner find them interesting and historical, even intriguing.

During the 1880s, some alert businessmen in Ash Grove, Mo. saw the establishment of a cemetery as a way to make money. They believed "anyone who cares enough for their departed love ones will gladly pay for a lasting monument" according to early writings of this organization. When the Ash Grove Cemetery was established, it was the only large cemetery in the area and came with a promise to be "maintained for years." The founders wrote that they wanted "to provide a burial place for all the citizens of Ash Grove and the vicinity and to properly care of the same in a manner that would benefit their memories."

Those early organizers began a great tradition by detailing a governing body to organize this lasting monument to the area’s dead. An endowment fund was established to keep the cemetery tidy for as long as graves remained there. Today, the citizens of Ash Grove boast of one of the prettiest, best kept, oldest and most financially sound cemeteries in Missouri. All of those facts are due to something that began in Chandler’s General Store more than 115 years ago.

Even though few people knew about it, several of the town’s leaders were meeting that night (Jan. 23, 1883) in Chandler’s General Store. The meeting had been called to discuss the organization of a large public cemetery in Ash Grove. Apparently, the idea was well liked because it took only one meeting — and less than one hour -- to convince these in attendance to start the association. In this time short time the foundation was laid and the officers were appointed: J.L. Perryman, president, W.T. Chandler, secretary-treasurer.

The association’s first business was to apply for a "Certificate of Incorporation." R.L. Goade traveled to Jefferson City and filed the certificate for $50. Michael McGrath, the Secretary of the State of the State of Missouri, approved the incorporation on Feb. 20, 1883. By having this certificate, the Ash Grove Cemetery Association was formed as "a private corporation for manufacturing and business purposes."

Having $2,000 of capital always on hand was the only standing requirement.

The Association began selling company stock on May 4, 1883, at a price of $25 a share. W.T. Chandler, who bought eight shares, purchased the first stock. At the end of the corporations’ existence, over 2,000 shares of stock had been sold. The first dividends were not given until Jan. 2, 1909. Some of the first dividends were awarded to J.F.G. Bentley, who had 200 shares in his possession.

At the next cemetery board meeting July 20, 1883, W.T. Chandler presented the association’s handwritten "by-laws," and "articles of agreement." These documents — which set guidelines for the purchase and sale of burial plots -- were approved Sept. 30, 1883, by the organization and the operations of the cemetery began.

The first land for the "original" cemetery (5.5 acres) was purchased Oct. 23, 1883, from Mary and Jacob Perryman for $700. The board agreed that a stockholder who sold a lot would receive 10 percent of the lot’s price, and the officers would receive a salary of $25 a year, starting Oct. 29, 1883. The first lot was sold to W.T. Chandler at a cost of $40. On Nov. 3, 1883, he purchased Lot 31, Block "C" in the original part of the cemetery. In this area some of the tombstones actually date as far back as the 1820s.

Research indicates that many area citizens’ wished to have their relatives buried at a central and lasting location so they moved graves, bodies and tombstones from area family plots to the Ash Grove cemetery. One example would be that of James Farmer’s three children who died at infancy in 1885. James Farmer buried his children on his own land after their death. When the cemetery was established, he purchased a large lot and moved his children from his farm into Ash Grove to be buried in the town cemetery.

The leadership of the Association agreed to have yearly meetings to discuss stocks and to have new elections. All of these meetings were held in Chandler’s General Store until 1927. The cemetery association then adapted itself to comply with some of the new state laws for cemeteries. The same state laws regulating when and where a cemetery association should meet also specified that "no trees or shrubs are to be planted on a person’s plot" and that "the headstone can be no higher than two inches above the ground but the center stone can be any height, as long as it is confined to the lot that was purchased."

Sometime in 1891 the Ash Grove Cemetery Association hired its first caretaker, or as he was often called, sexton. The first caretaker at the Ash Grove Cemetery was J.W. Swindler, and he worked for $7.50 per year until 1901.

A major road (State Hwy. 160) was built through Ash Grove around 1926 and the cemetery was forced to sell land on its north side for the highway. The association received $175 for the land it sold. The selling of that land was the last major event in the lift of the Ash Grove Cemetery Association as a corporation. From this time on, the corporation struggled to stay in existence and it was only able to remain profitable until 1930. Since the Association was struggling financially when the depression hit the corporation ceased to be a money-make organization. During the 1970s, the Ash Grove Cemetery Association was formed, replacing the "for-profit" stockholder structure, and that system has functioned well, giving Ash Grove one of the finest cemeteries in the area, one with perhaps the most unique history.

What enables a company or organization to remain functional for over 115 years? What does it take to be financially solid through a depression, legal difficulties, organizational changes and the skyrocketing cost of all the things required to keep a cemetery operating?

One way or another, the Ash Grove Cemetery Association has managed to continue improving. The foresight of the groups founding organizers is evident in the fact they purchased of plenty of land to grow, established a functional method of leadership, starting off financially sound and always having responsible people willing to volunteer their time to the association. Each of these facts helped to make the association a long-term success and Ash Grove’s cemetery one of the finest final resting-places in the Ozarks.


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