The Fight to Save Historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery near Martin City
By Diane Euston
Harvey Holmes Kemper III moved leaves aside as he searched for his great-great-grandfather, Urial Holmes’ final resting place. “It’s got to be here somewhere,” he commented as he clutched a 2012 photo of the gravestone.
Hiding underneath a carpet of leaves are hundreds of stories of survival, triumphs and the tragedies of pioneer life. In one historic cemetery in South Kansas City, an effort to revitalize and preserve what is left is underway.
Sandwiched in between houses in Timber Hill Estates off 125th Pl. and Wornall Rd. is
Mount Pleasant Cemetery, also referred to in records as the King Burying Ground. As early as 1840, before settlement was even legal, pioneers began using this land atop one of the rolling hills of Jackson County. First, William King settled on the land and after his death and burial in 1857 the land passed to his children. In 1878, what was once known as King Burial Ground was renamed “Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” most likely due to the name of the country school only a few hundred yards away. By 1885, the land was sold to Joshua Self, son of John Self who is also buried at this sacred location. Today, the cemetery stands in a shadow of its former glory.
Clean up Discoveries
A group of about 25 dedicated volunteers spent Saturday, April 14th armed with rakes, chainsaws and hundreds of leaf bags in order to spruce up the burial ground that has fallen into disrepair. A team of Avila University’s “Dear Neighbor Day” volunteers, Boy Scout Troop 531, and passionate history buffs came to assist the effort to clean up six years’ worth of leaves, broken branches, and fallen headstones lying on their side.
Kemper’s son is part of the Boy Scouts who volunteered to help the family find the resting place of their family member. Kemper’s own father stood in the shadows, overwhelmed that even as the leaves were removed, the headstone of his own great grandfather appeared to be missing. “This just isn’t right,” he commented as he shook his head side-to-side with a few tears welling in his eyes.
Urial Holmes, a Tennessee native who came to Jackson Co. in 1853 and settled near the Red Bridge, passed away at 43 years old in 1855. He, like many of the pioneers of southern Jackson Co., was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. His own son, also named Urial, relayed to the DAR in 1934 that this gravesite was used for burials many years prior to even the deaths documented then.
In the 1934 survey of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 43 graves still remained surrounded by private farmland owned by the Self family. In 2012, a cleanup led by Doug Vaughn of Fresno, Ca., a descendant of John Self who is buried in the cemetery, reset headstones upright, removed many trees and placed two markers at the entrance of the cemetery.
Even as Timber Hill Estates continued to build large custom homes around the old burial ground, the grounds of the one acre tract morphed into more of a vacant lot than a peaceful, historic cemetery.
When the first burials of Mount Pleasant Cemetery were interred, this section of Jackson Co. was not even open to legal settlement. Some families, such as John Shelton (1788-1854), took a gamble and moved from Virginia and squatted on land illegally just south of current-day Grandview, Mo. His five year-old son passed away in 1840. He is the oldest burial on record at the cemetery.
His stone has vanished after years of neglect and vandalism.
Another section of the cemetery showcases the remains of where an above-ground vault once stood atop the hills and was built for someone traveling on the Santa Fe Trail. According to the DAR book published in 1934, this vault was built for William M. See who died at 21 years old in 1849 “while enroute west with his parents” and “after 84 years, the marble head stone and vault, above ground, are in excellent condition.”
Only fragments of this vault remain, thus virtually erasing this burial from the site.
John Humphrey, a local lawyer with a love of history, was fascinated with the old burial ground when his parents were building a house in the newly-formed subdivision. When the cleanup in 2012 was organized, Humphrey jumped at the chance to help and documented the discoveries on his camera.
He returned Saturday and was surprised to see how much had changed. “It’s very disappointing to me that in so few years there are far fewer tombstones and grave markers than there were then.”
Disappointment was replaced with excitement when Humphrey uncovered an old headstone that had fallen into the earth and hidden for over a century.
Adonna Thompson, Archivist at Avila University and leader of the team from the school, read the remnants of a headstone as the leaves were brushed away. “It says ‘Nellie,’” she smiled. Records show it was a small piece of Nellie May Savage’s grave, placed there by her parents when she passed away at just over a year old in 1890.
“Avila was inspired to give back to our local community by helping to restore this cemetery,” Thompson explained. “Saving these culturally significant places is meaningful to Avila University and to me.”
After four hours of labor, the group of volunteers removed 297 bags of leaves and debris from the one acre landscape of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Piles of leaves and sticks remain; the work is far from complete. Efforts in the next month will continue.
For now, the families of those buried at Mount Pleasant are hopeful that the community will come together and find a viable solution to honor one of the oldest surviving burial grounds in Jackson Co.
The history of southern Jackson County can be found in the myriad of stories of these pioneers that chose Mount Pleasant Cemetery as their final resting place. Further restoration of this small burial ground will connect the future with the past as well as ensure that their sacrifices, lives and legacy are never forgotten.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com