ROCHESTER, Iowa — Darrell Gritton looks across Rochester Cemetery, where three generations of his family are buried and where he expects to be buried himself, and he sees brush — brush so thick and tall it is difficult for him to walk to his relatives’ graves.
To him, it is a disgraceful condition that needs immediate correction.
Bob Thumma looks upon the same piece of ground and sees a rare, original prairie remnant, rich with more than 350 species of plants and — mindful that Iowa has lost 99.9 percent of its original landscape — he feels a responsibility to preserve this 13.5-acre sliver of what is left.
Gritton and Thumma represent two sides of a simmering controversy in this Cedar County community that heated up late last month when Gritton and his wife, Deanna, spearheaded a petition asking that the cemetery be cleaned up and mowed like other cemeteries in the county.
They gathered 110 signatures and mailed the petition to the township clerk and the three Rochester Township trustees, including Thumma, who are in charge of maintaining the community cemetery.
That action prompted a counter-petition by people who want to keep the cemetery’s natural state of wildflowers and grasses. It also has stirred alarm and worry outside the community among people who are intensely interested in prairies and native plants, including some that look like weeds.
Rochester Cemetery has a reputation among naturalists in the Midwest and beyond who regularly make pilgrimages to the site 35 miles west of the Quad-Cities to observe and study the ever-changing prairie plants, particularly those called shooting stars during May.
Thumma agrees that the petitioners who want the cemetery cleaned up have a valid point. He said because of optimum rainfall this summer, the cemetery “is looking a little extra rough right now” and that there is a problem with invasive garlic mustard, black locust trees and staghorn sumac shrubs that he is trying to address.
“I understand what they’re saying, but I don’t want to be the one that destroys it,” he said. “Our church teaches we are stewards, not owners.”
He thinks that if the cemetery is mowed every four to six weeks as the original petitioners would like, the prairie eventually would be destroyed. It might take several years, but without seed formation, the plants would cease to exist, he thinks.
Thumma said he has been surprised by the intensity shown by those who want the cemetery mowed and thinks community opinion is split about 50-50. He hopes some middle ground can be reached.
Also, Thumma said he will tractor-mow the cemetery in October, after the first frost, as he has been doing for “quite a few years.” That takes the vegetation down to a little less than a foot in height, he said. Closer mowing will be done around the individual gravestones, and he and volunteers will treat the invasive trees with the herbicide Tordan.
The other two trustees, John Zaruba and Glen Negergall, and Township Clerk Lynn Treimer, who is also is a voting member of the board, said they support that maintenance plan.
Thumma said he once mowed the cemetery twice a year, but he dropped that practice because he was told it was harmful to the native plants.
Burial in Rochester Cemetery is free, and there is no “perpetual care” agreement, he said. People with relatives buried there are welcome to bring their own equipment and mow around their graves, and many do so.
“They can mow it as short and as many times as they want to,” he said.
Gritton and others who signed the petition say they want something done now in the overgrown areas where no relatives mow.
“The honor guard doesn’t like to come here anymore,” Deanna Gritton said. “The mourners get into poison ivy.”
They view the “plant people” as outsiders.
“Rochester Cemetery is our cemetery, not a wildflower bed or open prairie for strangers and out-of-towners,” she said. “It’s not a tourist spot, it’s a cemetery. I’m sorry, but it’s a cemetery first. That’s our opinion. How did wildflower people get a say in my cemetery?”
“There’s other places for wildflowers,” Joanne C. Williams added. “This is a cemetery and needs to be respected as such.”
In addition to the petition, Darrell Gritton and Williams have filed as candidates to unseat Zaruba and Treimer in the Nov. 7 township trustee election. If Gritton and Williams are elected, the opinion on maintenance would be split 2-2. Their petition included 110 names; the township has 411 registered voters, according to the county auditor’s office.
Mary Jo Ogden of North Liberty, in nearby Johnson County, is among those circulating the “save the prairie” petition. Although she does not live in Rochester Township, her father’s family and his mother’s family are buried there. She fears that if the cemetery is mowed frequently, “we’ll never see those shooting stars again. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
She thinks some of the people signing the first petition did not realize that if the cemetery is mowed as frequently as requested that the wildflower plants and grasses eventually will be destroyed. It is a “national treasure,” she said of Rochester.
Alma Gaul can be contacted at (563) 383-2324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first burials in Rochester Cemetery date to the early 1830s. It contains an estimated 300 to 400 graves.