By Diane Euston
Recently, I caught a plea on social media from a woman who was searching for her great-grandmother’s grave inside Blue Ridge Lawn Cemetery, a burial ground established around 1925 for the African American community.
Regardless of calls to the still-operating cemetery, the woman couldn’t find the headstone. When the cemetery was established, it was endowed and was marketed as being a cemetery that would offer perpetual care of the grounds.
However, a more-recent sale of the cemetery has changed things; a sign, rattled with grammatical errors, announces at its gates that the grounds no longer offer perpetual care; they mow the cemetery, but no one ensures that mounds of loose grass and soil aren’t slowly covering up the simple grave markers.
As we approach Memorial Day, many of us are carving out time over our holiday weekend to place flowers at loved-one’s graves.
But, what if you can’t find your loved ones? What if, over time, these cemeteries become overgrown and ignored?
In 1933, the Kansas City Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution published a book called Vital Historical Records of Jackson County, Missouri, 1826-1876. Organized by township, the book covers early church records and cemeteries. Within it, 18 pages are devoted to these early burial grounds in southern Jackson County that still existed when the book was published.
Let’s take a look at how over time, some of these final resting places of pioneers have been rediscovered and others remain in serious neglect due to their ownership and accessibility.
Knoche Burial Ground
Johannes Franz (Frank) Knoche was born in 1795 in Germany where he married his wife, Elisabeth. They had at least five children.
Frank Knoche arrived with his wife and five children in 1858 and quickly purchased land at current-day 140th and Holmes Rd. He passed away on his land in 1865, and his sons took over ownership of the land.
As time progressed and land values increased due to the bustling railroad town Martin City, the Knoche heirs gradually sold off portions of their extensive farmland. The original burial ground and the land around it passed to his son, Louis (1834-1917), who sold his interest in the property to his sons.
About 40 graves stood in that family cemetery at 140th and Holmes, and it became crucial at the turn of the century for the Knoches to consider moving their loved ones off of private land. The land was set aside in deeds as a burial ground, but unlike other pioneers, the Knoches knew that didn’t guarantee the graveyard’s safety.
At the turn of the century, the farm where the graveyard stood was owned by Jim Knoche, and he had gathered enough signatures from relatives to transfer interest in the land to him. The plan, Jim told the Knoches, was to purchase a half-acre lot in Belton Cemetery and have the bodies removed there.
The family grew anxious, and when nothing was done, Jim’s uncle, Henry (1839-1918) filed suit along with 10 other family members in November 1916. Henry and the rest of the family wanted the agreement they signed set aside.
Luckily, the lawsuit stopped before the situation grew any tense. Jim Knoche did move all of the graves from the burial ground to Belton Cemetery.
The original site of the cemetery is now the cloverleaf that makes up the intersection of 150 Highway and Holmes Rd. The graves were saved and successfully relocated due to the insistence of the family.
Klapmeyer Burial Ground
In the late 1830s, Johann Heinrich “Henry” Klapmeyer (1801-1873) arrived with his wife and four children and originally settled in Westport.
In 1849, Henry purchased 200 acres of land on the Blue River near current-day 137th and Holmes. Since there was no bridge over the river until the late 1870s, the area became known as “Klapmeyer’s Ford.”
When Henry’s daughter, Mary and her infant son, William died nine days apart in 1861, the Klapmeyers chose a beautiful patch of land near the Blue River as the final resting place for their kinfolk. At least seven people were buried there between 1861 and 1890.
The family carried on farming for generations, slowly selling off portions of the original homestead over time. Son James (1850-1919) moved to farmland bordering State Line (current-day Klapmeyer Park, Timber Trace and Blue Hills), and brothers William and Henry moved just across the state line in current-day Leawood.
The family did, however, hold onto the little burial ground.
Klapmeyer Burial Ground is an exception to these small resting places; the land was purchased in the early 1950s and became Ozanam Home for Boys. The cemetery in the southeast corner of the property is sandwiched between a Storage Mart and the Ozanam property. A chain-length fence surrounds the Klapmeyer cemetery, and Ozanam keeps up with the ongoing maintenance of this sacred space. Many descendants of Henry Klapmeyer still call the area home.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery (King Burying Ground)
Situated in between houses in Timber Hill Estates off 125th Pl. and Wornall Rd. is Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As early as 1840, before settlement was even legal, pioneers began using this land as a cemetery.
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, whose father John Self is buried at this sacred location. Today, the cemetery stands in a shadow of its former glory.
In the 1933 survey of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 43 graves still remained surrounded by private farmland held onto by the Self family. Descendants owned the land for many years until a developer bought it and platted out Timber Hills Estates in 2003.
The oldest of the monuments that once stood in this peaceful one-acre cemetery was an above-ground burial vault placed for William See. William died in 1849 at the age of 21 when he and his parents were enroute on the Santa Fe Trail.
The burial vault and marble headstone was in “excellent condition” in 1934. Nothing remains today.
When the developer purchased the land, the one-acre cemetery was part of the deal even though it was protected. Former residents of the subdivision informed me that the developer, in order to build near the cemetery, had to enclose the one acre with a fence. The developer complied, and a wrought iron fence borders three of the four sides.
Any ongoing maintenance is completely ignored. Cleanup efforts here and there have happened over the years, including one organized by me in 2018 where 297 bags of brush and leaves were removed. No cleanup, as far as I know, has ever been organized by the subdivision where the cemetery is – where residents drive by each day.
Whose responsibility is it to maintain a public burial ground that holds the graves of at least 76 pioneers? Shouldn’t we all be concerned that I counted only 19 graves six years ago, and in 2012, they counted 35?
Holloway Burial Ground
As 150 Highway was being widened by the state in 2001, bulldozers halted grading when a headstone was unearthed on the northwest side of Prospect Ave. and the highway.
The inscription was clear as day: America Ann Holloway, Born Feb. 9, 1835, Died July 26, 1858; aged 23 years, 3 months, 17 days.
The state had conducted a cultural resource study prior to widening to ensure they didn’t run into this exact problem, but small family cemeteries prior to the Civil War were rarely officially recorded.
The discovery ceased all construction of the road until state officials could figure out what to do. The circuit court eventually granted permission to move the graves. A genealogical search also notified distant family of the event.
The land from just east of Holmes to Prospect Ave., north to approximately 150 Highway south to the county line was originally homesteaded in 1848 by John G. Holloway (1812-1892) and his wife, Nancy. Hailing originally from Virginia and marrying in Kentucky, Holloway moved his family to Missouri in 1835.
John and Nancy’s oldest son, Isaac (1832-1918) married America Ann Wilson in 1852 and purchased part of his father’s land to farm. The couple welcomed two sons: William in 1854 and Isaac in 1857. When little Isaac was just 15 months old, he passed away. Nine days later, his mother, America lost her life – likely from the same illness.
The two headstones uncovered on that hot May day in 2001 belonged to mother and son.
Archaeologists were called into the site, and distant family members along with nearby homeowners watched as earth was carefully moved, remnants of the original burials uncovered layer-by-layer.
Onlookers could see the dirt change color. Prior to modern burials, coffins were put into the ground about eight feet deep with no vault; over time, the bones and caskets decompose into carbon, turning the soil a dark brown color.
That dark brown color was spotted nine times, and these nine ancient graves (seven unknown) were carefully placed in a coffin and reburied at Bryant Cemetery in Belton where the rest of the Holloways, including John and his son, Isaac, were interred.
Davis Burial Ground
Research told me that James E. Davis was born in 1827 in Bath County, Ky. When he was six years old, he moved with his father, Morton to Jackson County, Mo.
Moses Wells (1808-1872) and his wife, Mary (1808-1886) moved from Kentucky to land southwest of current-day Martin City in 1848. Two years later, James Davis purchased 160 acres of land just north of the Wells family. In 1854, James married Moses Wells’ daughter, Mary (1838-1882). The couple settled on land spanning from 135th St. to the north to 139th St. to the south, bordered on the west just past Wornall Rd. and stretched to Oak St. The farmhouse stood near current-day Eagles Gymnastics on 135th St.
Shortly after homesteading the land, tragedy struck the Wells and Davis families. Moses Wells’ daughters, Mary (Davis), Permelia (Robinson) and Nancy (Estes) all suffered the loss of children. Between 1854 and 1871, six infants were buried at this small burial ground in the southeast corner of the Davis land. An impressive dry-laid rock wall, about four feet tall, was built in a perfect 50×50 foot square around the little cemetery.
Permelia died, likely during childbirth, in 1876 at 39 years old. Nancy Estes, James Davis’ sister-in-law, was struck by lightning on her farm near Martin City and was buried at the Davis family cemetery in 1885.
Multiple other burials followed, including James Davis’. He peacefully passed away napping in his chair in Belton, Mo. in 1900, 18 years after he buried his beloved wife in that cemetery. In all, James Davis survived five of his 11 children.
He wasn’t the last of the family to be interred at this little burial ground now hidden from view. Stephen Estes, James Davis’ brother-in-law, lived for a time with his grown children and eventually settled into a town life with his granddaughter, Susie Knoche, in Martin City.
Estes passed away at 91-years-old a stone’s throw from his wife’s grave and was buried at the Davis Cemetery in 1923. No marker was ever erected in his memory.
The boom of the railroad is what inspired real estate speculators to organize a town called Martin City in 1887, and when the tracks through the town were built, they cut dangerously close to the southeast corner of the cemetery.
Regardless, a little road led to the cemetery and its impressive imprint can be seen in aerial views of the area for decades. However, access for those paying a visit to this cemetery would soon have no safe way to get there.
Between 1955 and 1957, the Union Pacific Railroad built a spur onto the railroad tracks that literally landlocked the Davis Burial Ground. Smack-dab into the widest portion of the land in between, the Davis family’s graves were overtaken by volunteer trees, brush and vandalism.
Retribution for Resting Places
I made it my personal mission to locate this old burial ground, and after studying countless aerial photographs, land records and listening to the locals, I determined I finally had a pretty good idea of where the Davis Burial Ground was.
On Saturday, May 20, my friend Dan and I walked through the woods near 139th St., and headed for the spur in the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
I almost missed it, but a fragment of a once-impressive stone wall caught my eye.
The wild foliage, decades of neglect, made it nearly impossible to search for anything on the ground. We gingerly walked within the still-intact rock wall that once clearly marked at least 18 graves in a pioneer cemetery.
After several minutes of searching, I caught a polished circular stone speckled with moss.
That moss meant it was carved, and after I flipped it over, I could make out the faint imprint of an “E,” once a carefully carved letter on a headstone.
Broken pieces could be found in spots, but no complete monument that once clearly stood in this peaceful place could be located.
This wasn’t just the damage of overgrowth and neglect; this was vandalism.
This burial ground is not a place where people today should attempt to visit; it is the “property” of Union Pacific Railroad and isn’t safe to see. And, Union Pacific Railroad knows exactly what they did when they barricaded this burial ground in between two sets of railroad tracks and allowed for overgrowth to engulf it.
I will use my words to make as many people aware of this neglect and call on others to demand that Union Pacific take action to clear out this piece of our collective history. I hope you, too, will help to raise awareness and plea that something be done.
The Davis cemetery may have broken headstones, but they- along with all of these pioneer burial grounds – deserve dignity and respect on this earth.
This quest begins now. James Davis’ obituary ended with a fitting quote. It read, “God grant his prayers may be answered and that they may gather an unbroken family in the Paradise above.”
To contact Union Pacific and ask about the treatment of this cemetery over the past 67 years, call 1-888-UPRRCOP (877-7267).