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New book highlights ‘rare jewel’ cemetery

New book highlights ‘rare jewel’ cemetery

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A new hardcover book being distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press describes in words and 76 beautiful color photos the wonder that is Rochester Cemetery, a rare jewel of the Quad-City region, perhaps even the nation.

The cemetery is a 13.5-acre tract in Cedar County, Iowa, established as a burial ground in pioneer days, a use that continues to the present. More than 900 people are buried there, dating to 1838.

But what makes the cemetery so unusual is that it is a never-plowed prairie remnant so diverse that more than 400 species of plants have been documented there, 337 of them native to the region, according to an exhaustive list compiled over time by Diana Horton, a retired professor of botany at the University of Iowa.

That is significant because it embodies a natural heritage that is mostly gone. At one time, Iowa was mostly tallgrass prairie. Today, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of that remains.

A visit to Rochester - 35 miles west of the Quad-Cities - can show you what this region might have looked like when European settlers first arrived. This is a sand prairie/savanna, meaning there are scattered trees - mainly huge white oaks - among the grasses and prairie plants that bloom according to the seasons, beginning in the spring with pinks and whites and continuing through summer/fall with yellows.

People come in droves around Mother's Day to see the spectacular shooting stars.

To maintain the cemetery, caretakers use a "weedeater" in July to trim the ground immediately around the gravestones and then mow the entire tract with a tractor-mower in October, said Jon Zobel, the chairman of the four-member board of township trustees that oversees the cemetery.

Once-a-year mowing means that, in summer, the plants can be quite tall and raggedy-looking, but that's the prairie.

Trustees work with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on the best way to manage the prairie and keep down invasive, non-native weeds such as garlic mustard, ragweed and prickly cucumber, Zobel said. Last fall, a group came in to conduct a controlled burn on a portion of the cemetery.

Some people in the community would like to see the cemetery mowed more often, and that disagreement occasionally surfaces, but things have been calm for a number of years, Zobel said.

"Life and Death on the Prairie," with photographs and text by Stephen Longmire, depicts the beauty and heritage of the small, irreplaceable tract. The book includes Horton's plant list, identified by both common and Latin names.

In conjunction with the publication, the University of Iowa-Old Capitol Museum has on display about 35 photos from the book as well as several mounts and skins of animals - such as the ruffled grouse - that would have been part of the prairie the pictures depict.

And on Saturday, Dec. 10, author Longmire will give a talk about his book and the cemetery. Longmire is a photographer/writer/teacher presently living in Upper Jay, N.Y., who encountered and fell in love with Rochester about 10 years ago.

He had become interested in prairies and spent the summer of 2001 as artist-in-residence to the National Park Service, photographing a prairie planted in the 1970s to commemorate Herbert Hoover's birthplace and gravesite in West Branch.

That 80-acre plot has become established and boasts lots of diversity.

But it is a restoration, not the real thing. Longmire wondered about the real thing, wondered whether there might be an actual prairie somewhere. Finally, a retired farmer told him, "You better get out to Rochester Cemetery."

Note: If you would like more information about Longmire's photo exhibit or talk, call the museum at 319-335-0548 or go to

And if you would like to visit Rochester Cemetery, take Interstate 80 west to the Tipton exit. Turn right (north) on Iowa 38 for 1.4 miles and then turn left on Cemetery Road. Follow that several miles to the cemetery, which is on both sides of the road.



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