One of the Quad-Cities' oldest and largest cemeteries has fallen on hard times.
The crematorium at Fairmount Cemetery, 3902 Rockingham Road, is the oldest in Iowa. The original 200-plus acres of flat and rolling grounds hold some of Davenport's most prominent citizens, and the cemetery reportedly contains more veterans than any other in the region, except for the National Cemetery on the Rock Island Arsenal.
But Fairmount's pedigree has not spared it from near ruin.
Long-ignored grass and weeds not only are unsightly, but they have hidden grave sites from family members wishing to pay their respects. Fallen tree branches lie draped atop broken headstones. The crematory's incinerator — once its chief moneymaker — no longer is operational.
But it gets worse.
Nearly a year's worth of cemetery records are missing, which means no one knows for sure where some people were buried. Some plots were resold and, in at least one case, a man was buried in another man's grave. Judging by the open crypts and left-behind beer cans, a family mausoleum has been disturbed.
Accusations about mismanagement and even theft have been flying, but differences of opinion seem more likely culprits than blatant wrongdoing. As members of two long-battling families lick their wounds and walk away, Fairmount now is falling into the hands of the State of Iowa, ultimately headed for either City of Davenport or Scott County control.
Most of those who have served on the cemetery's board or have been paid to work there have family members buried at Fairmount. But years of disagreements have rendered them unable and/or unwilling to bury the hatchet.
Now, it's out of their hands.
'It's a sinking ship'
Cheryl Puls was scared to have the meeting.
She had to get up in front of several dozen people, many of them angry, and try to explain what was happening at Fairmount.
As one of only two remaining members of the seven-member cemetery board, Puls finally was washing her hands of it, too. It was time to let the state take over.
But many of the 30-plus people who attended the meeting were far from ready to let it go. In fact, a half-dozen people at the June 29 meeting were nominated by others in attendance to serve on the cemetery board. Even if they had followed the board's bylaws for nominations, it was too late.
"The state will dismantle the board, anyway," said Ben Steen, a grandson of board president Robert Stradt, whom Stradt hired about two months ago.
"Ben found out about the opportunity for the state to take over when he Googled, 'What to do when a cemetery is failing,'" Stradt said.
Many of those at the June meeting in the crematorium office wanted to know how it was possible for Fairmount to fail. As a perpetual care cemetery, a portion of income from cremations, burials and interments have for decades been deposited into a trust.
While many appeared to sympathize with an obviously emotional Puls, not everyone was agreeable to her characterization of the cemetery's problems.
For instance, when she said, "There has not been any money stolen. This has been going on since the '40s," about half the crowd responded with, "No! No! No!"
"I think someone needs prosecuted!" one woman shouted.
Several times, the meeting turned chaotic. Tears mingled with accusations.
Taking the heat with Puls, Steen tried to answer questions, but people were speaking over each other. He finally leaned against a wall, hung his head and softly said, "Almost since I've been here, volunteers is all we've been running on. I have a list of a dozen stones that need to be set."
He is not the first person to find Fairmount's problems overwhelming.
About the money
Because of decades of mandatory contributions to its trust, Fairmount looks flush on paper. Set-aside funds total about $1 million. But the money cannot be spent on routine maintenance or infrastructure improvements without petitioning the court.
"You can't steal money from a trust," Stradt said. "The fact is, our expenses are much higher than our income. It's been that way for a long time. We've been robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Though it also has benefited from estate bequests, Fairmount has three ways of making money: cremation, plot sales, burial and/or interment.
"One isn't possible now (because the incinerator is broken), and the other two are rare anymore," Steen said. "Every funeral home in town does cremations now. It wouldn't do us any good to fix the incinerator."
Once a brisk business, plot sales and burials are down, too, many say, because no one was answering the phones at Fairmount for several months. The poor condition of the grounds isn't helping, either.
When told about missing burial records and people being buried in the wrong plots, Hank Runge, of Runge Mortuary in Davenport, said, "You don't know how big of a nightmare that is."
But those who have served or continue to serve on the board said the real nightmare began long ago — when income plummeted and expenses crept up to two and three times the $2,000 a month that has been coming in. The grass and weeds weren't the only things getting out of control.
So, when a $200,000 bequest came in several years ago, Stradt and others on the board decided to spend most of it on two areas of the cemetery that were in real trouble: The crematorium and the mausoleum.
The mausoleum, which had been neglected for years, got a roof, furnace and lighting repairs. A basement sump pump was replaced to prevent several inches of rain water from repeatedly pooling there.
In the crematorium, the drop ceiling was removed, and the whole place was painted. It got a new furnace and air conditioning condenser, office windows, carpeting and bathroom updates.
Some said the work was desperately needed. Others called it a waste of money.
It was not unusual for those in charge of the cemetery to disagree. Two families in particular have been closely involved with operations at Fairmount, and their relationship has declined, many say, at the same rate as the cemetery itself.
'It's a family affair'
Nepotism never was frowned upon at Fairmount Cemetery.
For 22 years, Richard Kronfeld was the superintendent and was responsible for the grounds. He hired a mowing crew, and he poured the foundations for the headstones. He also conducted the cremations and burials.
One of his daughters, Kami Schurke, ran the office for 20 years. Another daughter helped in the office and on the grounds, and Kronfeld's wife did work at Fairmount, too.
Current board president, Stradt, worked alongside a grandson, Mike Nance, who also served on the board. When air conditioning was added to the crematorium, Stradt said, Mike Nance did the electrical work. He said he "donated most of it."
Nance's wife, Heather Nance, served as office manager until late last year. When the Nances resigned amid a whole host of board quarrels, Stradt hired another grandson, Ben Steen, to take over the office. Steen is paid $14 an hour. Heather Nance was paid $17 an hour, Stradt said.
He said Heather Nance has said she will return the burial records she took with her when she resigned (along with office keys and cemetery checkbooks), but she has not yet done so.
The Nances did not respond to requests for interviews.
In reviewing cemetery records, Steen said he found many instances in which bills were not paid until disconnection warnings were sent. Even the bill for trash collection was several months behind, he said, and the only bills being routinely paid were for the office Wifi and phone.
"I'm not defending her, because what she did was wrong," Stradt said of Heather Nance, "but she just got overwhelmed."
Added Steen, regarding his sister-in-law: "It's more what she didn't do. But that could be said about a lot of things."
Kronfeld, the longtime superintendent, and his office manager/daughter, Schurke, parted ways with Fairmount in 2014. But both attended the meeting late last month.
At that meeting, Puls told the crowd she was "the only one left on the board," and, "I'm all by myself."
However, when Steen appeared at the crematorium for a July 6 interview about the state receivership, his grandfather also attended. Stradt introduced himself, saying, "I'm still the president and treasurer for the board."
He said he did not attend the meeting led by Puls, because he feared his presence would only make matters worse.
"I'm an unpopular guy," Stradt said. "I've been doing this for 15 years, and I've never been paid. I just wanted to save the cemetery, bottom line.
"No matter what we did, some people thought it was wrong. You can't be helpful when you're hated."
The 76-year-old said he and Kronfeld frequently disagreed about what was best for the cemetery, and their differences took a toll. But Fairmount's problems also have caused strife in his own family. Despite the bad blood, Stradt said, he is certain everyone was looking out for Fairmount's best interests.
"I would be in favor of an audit of the financials," he said. "Have the state do it, and let the chips fall where they may."
Kronfeld said some of the cemetery's problems started and ended with Stradt.
"The board fired the whole crew," he said of his family's departure three years ago. "What I was told is that we weren't doing our job. The whole thing now lays on the board and Bob Stradt. If he doesn't like you, he fires you.
"I was supposed to watch what I spend. After I left, they blew all the money. That mausoleum was dead on arrival.
"I worked there 24/7, and I put my whole life into it."
The pair of patriarchs can agree on one thing: "I want to see the state do an audit," Kronfeld said.
Runge said he noticed the cemetery's decline and offered to help. It could be good news, he said, that the city is likely to take over, "depending on how they handle it."
He also has family buried at Fairmount.
"I'll go have a look and maybe send our crew out there to take care of our area," Runge said.
Many others have been taking the maintenance of their family plots into their own hands, mowing patchwork sections around loved ones' stones.
On July 8 and 9, Fairmount supporters turned out en masse, spending the weekend clearing it of long grass and weeds.
For Julia Sird, the do-it-yourself care is nothing new. When she noticed the conditions at Fairmount over Mother's Day weekend in May, she was outraged.
"I was disgusted, upset and broken-hearted," she said. "The grass was at least knee high. The headstones were covered in weeds and grass, and we had to pull the weeds around the headstones to see the names. It was very heart breaking that they have let the cemetery go like this.
"There was a elderly couple there, as well, and I was afraid for the older man as he walked through the tall grass to reach his mother's grave. As I watched the guy pull weeds to see the headstone, I got so angry."
Anger turned to action.
Sird is one of at least four people who organized volunteer efforts to mow Fairmount. On Saturday, a group of volunteers got to work, and an estimated 100 people turned out Sunday. Dozens of mowers and weed trimmers went to work on the grounds as Fairmount families rallied. But there are many more weeks remaining in the mowing season, and many of those who volunteered over the weekend said they spent eight hours on the grounds.
As is often the case when citizens are frustrated, many Fairmount families turned to their alderman — the 1st ward's Rick Dunn.
"I was contacted just before Memorial Day, and I was told they're having financial issues," Dunn said. "Unfortunately, they're not selling any plots, and everybody's doing cremations now.
"It needs help, but it's not a city issue. All I can do is volunteer, so that's what I've been doing. My grandma is buried up there."
Puls, the board member who faced angry families at the late-June meeting, said she has been volunteering on the board for two years as a tribute to her dad.
"I am worn out," she said. "I have such passion for the cemetery. I used to ride my bike up there to visit my sister's grave. When I joined the board, I had no idea how bad it was."
In addition to her mom and two sisters being buried at Fairmount, Puls also plans to be laid to rest there.
Helen Hagen does, too.
"I'm afraid to die," the 82-year-old said after learning of Fairmount's troubles. "I've already paid for it all. I'm going to be buried with my mother.
"How am I going to know when it's OK for me to die?"
A spokesman for the Iowa Insurance Division offered assurances last week that all pre-paid services will be honored.
The Iowa Attorney General currently has all the documents necessary to file a petition in court to place Fairmount in receivership. Given the matter is consensual, Chance McElhaney, of the Iowa Insurance Division said, his agency likely will be appointed to take over "very quickly" after the filing.
The Iowa Insurance Division then "will immediately enter into a maintenance contract for the grounds."
Until the receivership matter is resolved, the care, maintenance and management of Fairmount remains in the hands of the only two board members who have not officially resigned. Both say they have done all they can.