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It’s our duty to preserve our state’s heritage

Published: Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 11:07 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 11:49 a.m. CDT

Although we are often “upset” with them for one reason or other, governors are special people. To serve as the chief executive of a state of this great nation is not only an honor, but a terrific responsibility.

Since our statehood on December 28, 1846, Iowa has had 42 governors. Two, being Samuel Kirkwood (1860-1864; 1876-1877) and Terry Branstad, (1983-1999; 2011- Incumbent) first retired and then were later re-elected to the governorship.

I recently learned that Iowa’s seventh governor, Samuel Merrill, who served Iowa during the early years of 1868-1872, was in a mausoleum in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines. I visited the site, and was shocked and ashamed at the condition of the structure in which his remains are interred.

The once beautiful white sandstone structure is a disaster, having deteriorated over the years, culminating in its near destruction when a huge oak tree fell on the sandstone, brick and concrete structure. In fact, the force of the tree’s impact caused the north side to bow outward, break open and a portion fall outward to the ground. A hole exists allowing entry into the vault by a small person or animals.

The policy of Woodland Cemetery is that any gravesite is the responsibility of family or friends to maintain. Extensive genealogical research had already been undertaken for the Merrill family, finding only a distant elderly relative residing in a California nursing home. 

Thus, I brought it to the attention of Governor Branstad, and he agreed with my recommendation that restoration of the site should fall to the Department of Cultural Affairs. The governor is quite a historian of early Iowa, and is amenable to a line-item in the appropriation of funds from gambling revenue to the State Historical Society of Iowa for use in the essential restoration and preservation of this historic structure.

Even though Samuel Merrill was not born in Iowa (Turner, Maine), in 1856 he moved to McGregor. His prior experience had been as a teacher, farmer and owner of a mercantile business.

A strong abolitionist, he had served in the legislature of New Hampshire as a member of the Abolitionist Party. In Iowa, Merrill was soon elected to the Iowa House of Representatives until 1862, when Governor Kirkwood commissioned him a Colonel in the 21st Iowa Infantry. 

He was severely wounded at the battle of Big Black River Bridge in May of 1863 during the Civil War battle and siege of Vicksburg, Miss. Lingering effects of his extensive wounds resulted in his termination from the military in June of 1864.

I consider it our duty to ensure this veteran of the Civil War and seventh governor of the state of Iowa to have the tomb containing his mortal remains appropriately repaired and identified for cemetery visitors. I will seek the appropriation to make that happen.

In the meantime, the Des Moines Chapter of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War (of which I’m a member), will stabilize the north wall with steel rods and concrete, and fill the gaping hole with concrete. That should keep the tomb from collapsing during the short term, and allow for planning and reconstruction during next year’s construction season.

Any questions or comments, e-mail me at dblack@black4senate.com or call (515) 975-8608.

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