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Iowa’s hero governor, Col. Samuel Merrill

Published: Monday, March 3, 2014 11:30 a.m. CST

This past week the Associated Press picked up the story of my proposal that up to $100,000 be appropriated to the Department of Cultural Affairs for the restoration of the mausoleum of Iowa Governor Samuel Merrill of Clayton County. 

The remains of he and his wife are interred in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines. With AP’s report, the project was covered across the nation. 

Local response to the proposal was mixed. I received many emails from both Iowans and non-residents applauding the proposal. As usual, the opposition chose to chastise the project or me with their blogs, cloaked in anonymity, on frivolous spending of “their tax money.”

Governor Merrill’s mausoleum has been severely damaged by a huge oak tree, which fell on the structure during a wind storm of several years past. The damage is so extensive, the several ton concrete roof is ready to fall and crush the two caskets therein. 

The north wall is virtually destroyed, providing an opening to the crypt that animals use for access and egress. A mother raccoon and her litter shared the interior with the remains of the governor and his wife. Actually, the hole is large enough that a child would be able to enter.

Policy at Woodland is that “family or friends” are responsible for upkeep and repairs.  Since the only relative located is an elderly woman in a West Coast nursing home, I felt it appropriate to have the state undertake the restoration through the “Restore Iowa’s Infrastructure Fund,” known as RIIF. 

The fund annually receives the first $60 million of the taxes derived from land-based casinos, riverboat casinos, the Iowa Lottery and pari-mutuel racing.  The state receives $400 million annually in taxes from these entities.  

In addition to being Iowa’s seventh governor, serving from 1868-1872, Samuel Merrill was a Civil War veteran and acclaimed hero. Col. Merrill led the Iowa 21st Infantry, and was always at the front when leading his men into battle in major events along the Mississippi River corridor from St. Louis south to Vicksburg, Miss.

It was during the siege of Vicksburg that Merrill “led his men through a storm of leaden hail” at the battle of Big Black River Bridge and was so horrifically wounded, his injuries were initially declared “mortal.” He miraculously survived his wounds when returned to his Clayton County home for recuperation. 

General Ulysses S. Grant, never one to “deal in injudicious praise,” referred to Merrill’s intrepidity as “eminently brilliant and daring.” Grant later stated that had Merrill not been a general officer, he (Grant) would have recommended him for the Medal of Honor.

In its current condition, the crypt is a disaster waiting to happen. The work can be accomplished for less than the amount to be appropriated, with some of the remainder to be used for a brass plaque identifying the mausoleum’s occupants. 

Future generations have the right to stand before our veteran heroes, and ponder their contribution to the history of our state.  We must do no less.

• • •

During the session, call me at (515) 281-3371; write me at the Senate, Capitol Bldg., Des Moines, 50319; or e-mail dennis.black@legis.iowa.gov.  I value your thoughts and opinions.

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