Cemetery History

A final resting place for many citizens from Ottumwa’s past – a magnificent arboretum housing trees and shrubs planted through the city’s history – Ottumwa Cemetery is itself an important piece of Ottumwa’s story, Established in 1857, after the town’s original cemetery proved too small and too close to the center of the growing community, Ottumwa Cemetery was part of the rural cemetery movement, which was begun in the 1830s. In contrast to traditional church or family cemeteries, the rural cemetery was placed in the outskirts of town on a hillside or hilltop with a view of the town.  It was planned to be more than a burial space; it was to be a romantic landscape of hills and valleys, trees and winding roads that satisfied the public’s need for green and open space. Ottumwa Cemetery’s original 10 acres was plotted in grids of lots among the meandering hillside roads.  Although individual or paired lots were the custom, several large family plots—decorated with marble monuments and fencing—developed.

Throughout the early years of the cemetery, however, very few beautification projects to create the desired park-like setting were completed. Toward the end of the century, as Ottumwa Cemetery grew in size and importance to the community, its Board of Trustees began a series of projects that changed the face of the cemetery.

In 1887, a receiving vault of such ornamental and substantial character as to be a credit to the cemetery was erected.  The receiving vault, built of deep red brick and terra cotta panels in a High Victorian Gothic design, was needed because the severe Iowa winters would often prevent the digging of graves for several months.

Next, a romantic design wrought iron fence was built along Court Street, the main thorough fare leading up the hill from Ottumwa’s business district, so that Ottumwa Cemetery could present a formal front to the town. The keystone to the cemetery’s entrance, Edgerly Gateway, was the next improvement.  The fund to build the gateway and its adjacent office/chapel was begun with a bequest by Ottumwa businessman John W. Edgerly upon his death in 1894.  Over the next 10 years, the projects – designed by local architect George Kearns and build of Bedford limestone—were constructed at the southwest corner of the cemetery. The gateway, in the classical form of a Roman triumphal arch and reflective of the City Beautiful movement – was completed in 1904.  The office/chapel-completed in 1905-1906—is in a more romantic Gothic style with arched windows and a crenellated roofline.  It is dedicated to the Union Soldiers and Sailors of the Civil War.