Web posted Saturday, July 27, 2002
The Ark City Traveler
Reprinted with permission

Poor Farm Cemetery -- forgotten by time, by society
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Donita Clausen/Traveler

Traveler Staff Writer

There is nothing to indicate the little plot of ground on the curve of a dusty gravel road is a cemetery. A chain-link fence separates it from the fields on three sides and thick woods on the north.

A sign on the fence warns of underground power cables. A large old tree shades part of the area. A second tree, frail and broken, provides little more than a blot on the horizon.

Grasshoppers frantically dart about the freshly mowed weeds and pasture grass. A large golden butterfly glides gracefully back and forth, as though searching for something.

It passes over a clump of weeds mixed with iris that surround a stone monument so worn with age that it's difficult to read. A faded clump of red plastic flowers says that someone not so long ago remembered John Agan. His name is the one on the monument which also tells us he was born in 1849 and died in 1916.

Zachary Taylor became the 12th president of the U.S. in 1849 when John was born. John would have been 12 when Abraham Lincoln became president and 52 or so when Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th president. Woodrow Wilson was in office when John died.

The bright butterfly continues its journey under the cloudless sky, oblivious to the intense July heat. Another clump of faded red plastic flowers peeks through a larger clump of iris and weeds not far from John's spot. A broken stone teeters on a second stone. Only the last few letters of the name can be read; not enough to solve the mystery of who rests there.

John and his nameless friend share one thing in common -- they are buried in the Cowley County Poor Farm Cemetery -- a cemetery forgotten by time, except for the person who left those faded, red plastic flowers and the people who mow and even trim the weeds away from the fence.

"For no bigger than the cemetery is, and as many people who are buried there, it's plumb full, " said Cowley County Road Department employee Mike Keesey. "I think three stones are left in the whole cemetery. The rest were vandalized years ago."

Keesey, with help from a work crew from the Winfield Correctional Facility, takes care of Memorial Lawn Cemetery, the other cemetery the county owns and operates. The department put a new fence up a year or so ago after a tractor apparently pulled portions of the other one down.

"I mowed three times this year and took some trees down after the ice storm," he said.

The county purchased the land where the cemetery sits in 1880 from Joel Mack, who was listed on the deed as "an unmarried man." The county paid Mack $7,500 for the land. That was 10 years after Cowley County was organized, 12 years before the Dalton Gang tried to rob the bank in Coffeyville, and 17 years before the opening of the Cherokee Outlet.

The land was acquired and used "to maintain a home for indigent residents of Cowley County, who due to their impoverished condition depended upon the county for their support and care," according to county records.

Eldora Edministon was just 34 when she was buried in the cemetery in 1892, the first burial listed on records prepared by a genealogy group more than 10 years ago. B.F. Harris was 57 when he died and was buried there in 1894. The infant daughter of John Avila was buried there in 1932. Squires Batchelder was 86 when he died the next year. Emma Dye was just 32 -- you wonder if life was just too hard for her. She is the only Dye listed on the burial records. Did she have a husband, children? Was she pretty? Did she like to dance? Did anyone mourn her death?

All together, there are 104 names listed on the records filed in the Cowley County Engineer's Office for the little cemetery. Many of the burials occurred during the Great Depression between 1930 and 1939 when 15 million people were jobless.

The county used to operate a "welfare" program that the state later took over, according to former County Counselor Bill Taylor. The property was no longer being used for that purpose and the buildings were of little use to the county when the commission decided to auction the property.

Voters agreed with the commission in a special election and in 1975 former Sheriff Fred Satterthwaite and Taylor were directed to sell the property, with the exception of the parcel of land where the cemetery was located. Edwin and Dorothy Fisher became the new owners.

A number of different county commissioners have come and gone over the years since the last burials apparently occurred in the cemetery in 1940 -- a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked. The County Poor Farm Cemetery doesn't even have its own line item in the county budget. The courthouse maintenance man used to mow it regularly, and when he left, the engineer's office just unofficially took over the mowing.

A plywood sign was posted listing the names of the people buried there. "Kids would go out there and use it for target practice," said Debbie Clifford, who's worked in the engineer's office 20 years.

She remembers a man stopping in the office about 10 years ago trying to locate the grave of a relative buried there. He wanted to decorate the grave. But the exact location couldn't be traced and the man apparently gave up.

Keesey has noticed there's an American flag placed at the cemetery every Memorial Day. He doesn't know who puts it up, or who takes it down. There may be veterans of the Civil War there, or World War I. Who knows for sure?

There are children there, too. Somewhere in the cemetery is 14-year-old Fred Adams. He died in 1900, two years before Baby Adams was buried there. Did the same mother mourn them? There is another baby who was found on a junk pile and then buried there on Nov. 17, 1928. Did anyone cry for that baby?

If you wander about the cemetery, you'll notice signs of clumps of iris scattered about and mowed back. In one corner, a scrub tree is growing out of a peony bush. Someone had to care enough to plant the flowers all those years ago. Maybe some were planted for Baby Adams, others for the nameless baby found on the junk pile.

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