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Monday, April 30, 2018

The Struggle to Save Historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery in South Kansas City

Harvey Holmes Kemper III, known as Kurt to friends and family, 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.

Boy Scouts and volunteers work to bag leaves and brush on April 14th
When I started this journey several years ago, my first love, New Santa Fe Cemetery, was my inspiration. As a little girl, I fought the colonies of mosquitos in the summer and raced around the graves just up the street from my home. That cemetery was my catalyst even at seven years old, and I watched as the modest cemetery grew through preservation efforts, an added fence, and a little grass seed into one of the most beautiful pioneer cemeteries in all of Jackson County.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery hasn’t had its chance to shine- yet.

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 Co. 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.

Avila University Day of Service volunteers 
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.

Kurt Kemper's son is part of the Boy Scouts who volunteered to help the family find the resting place of their relative. Kurt's own father, Harvey 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.

And there I stood, unable to give him a resolution.  It appeared to be gone.

A photo from 1999 showing Mount Pleasant Cemetery's condition
Urial Holmes (1811-1855), 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 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 held onto by the Self family. Descendants owned the land for many, many years until a developer bought the land and platted out Timber Hills Estates in 2003.

Headstones remain on their sides, and in
some cases, upside down at the cemetery
Because the cemetery was separated from land records (including one acre and ten feet square on the northeast corner), the developer never could morph the cemetery into a manicured lot to sell. So, the developer built right up to it. Somehow, the clause including the ten feet square in the northeast corner was… left out of the records of sale and only the one acre remained. The ten feet square described in 1960 as a “burial ground” is now part of a driveway.

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.

To be clear, the cemetery was a mess for nine years, minus a few Boy Scout projects, as people bought lots and began construction on their homes. Building material was tossed into the dilapidated,  overgrown graveyard as Timber Hills Estates germinated into suburbia. We found building material scattered along the fenceline at the cleanup.

John Humphrey, a local lawyer with a taste for local history, discovered Mount Pleasant Cemetery when his parents began construction on a home in the subdivision in 2006.

He vividly recalls how incredibly peaceful this spot was in South Kansas City, tucked away and forgotten amidst the forest on top of the hill. The south side of the cemetery came to a downward slope. As John squirmed through the brush, trees and leaning headstones, he could hear running water below. A small creek peacefully passed through the natural landscape.

John Self (1803-1889)
“I can still see and feel vividly standing at that edge, basking in the warmest glow of the golden sun on my face, feeling incredulous that there was still this hidden heavenly wilderness in the middle of the part of town in which I'd grown up,” John fondly recalled.

This place was special, and he could sense the spirituality left behind by pioneers. “As I basked, I felt whatever it is one might feel when they are deeply touched by the lives and spirits of those who trod the same patch of earth before them,” John remembered.

It’s this moment that led John to ongoing efforts to help save what was left of the cemetery. And boy, how I am grateful to have him by my side.

In 2007, a cleanup led by Doug Vaughn of Fresno, Ca., 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.

John Self (1803-1889) was a true pioneer of Kansas City. He made the clapboards for the Chouteau warehouse and, according to his obituary, “helped to clear up the woods on the hills where Kansas City now stands.”

His grave is one of the few remaining, yet I find it quite ironic he is now overtaken by trees.

Ground Penetrating Radar report from 2012. Courtesy of Construction Solutions, Paola, Ks.
Ground Penetrating Radar was completed in 2012 at another cleanup initiated by Boy Scouts. Through this technology, one can see what anomalies or disturbed earth which lies below the surface. 76 grave sites were noted on the report and 35 headstones were found- four of which were buried underground.

2012 photo showing the overgrowth after just a few years of neglect
76 pioneers.

=35 headstones remained in 2012, and I counted 19 just the other day.

Even after the cleanup in 2012 relieved a majority of the chaos inside the fence line, the one acre tract continued to transform more into more of a vacant lot than a peaceful, historic cemetery. And, in my opinion, it is still exposed to vandals today. How else can we explain how graves seem to be missing in just six years?

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 and was the oldest burial on record at the cemetery.

His stone has vanished after years of neglect and vandalism, as did the rest of the Shelton family's graves.

The remains of William M. See's above-ground vault
that was in exquisite condition in 1934
A photo from 1999 reveals that at least one of the Sharp family's headstone was completely in-tact. Tilman B. Sharp (1805-1889) was left standing then. But there is absolutely no sign of his grave now.

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 Vital Records 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.

A small piece of headstone with the words "Nellie" was
discovered during the cleanup
John Humphrey jumped at the chance to help at the cleanup in 2012 and documented the discoveries on his camera.

He returned April 14th and 28th of this year (2018) to assist yet again. He was surprised to see how much had changed in the years since the first cleanup. “It’s very disappointing to me that in so few years there are far fewer tombstones and grave markers than there were then.”

Adonna Thompson, Archivist at Avila University and leader of the team from the school, gingerly cleared off a small remnant of a headstone revealed as the leaves were hauled away. “It says ‘Nellie,’” she smiled as she brushed away the debris.

Only one “Nellie” is in the 1934 survey of the cemetery, and this 1890 grave of a one-year-old is still upright.

Adonna discovered a new grave – or, at least a piece of one- that has remained buried under brush for over 100 years.
Impressions in the earth show the locations of unmarked graves

“Avila was inspired to give back to our local community by helping to restore this cemetery,” Adonna explained. “Saving these culturally significant places is meaningful to Avila University and to me.”

As leaves were carefully removed by Boy Scouts, Avila University volunteers, and history buffs that answered my plea for help, large indentions in the ground were exposed.

These pits are indicators of graves. When burial vaults are not utilized, the coffins decompose and the ground sinks. These craters have become markers of graves by themselves. No headstone is needed to know someone lies beneath.

Urial Holmes (1811-1855)
Kurt Kemper walked the dirt floor of the cemetery one last time at the end of the cleanup April 14th to see if he could spot his great-great-grandfather’s grave. He was hoping to show it to his son who was there with his Boy Scout troop. Unfortunately, he was met with disappointment as the last leaf bags were carried to the curb. “We would like to find out where his tombstone has run off to since it has rested there peacefully for the last 160 years until recently it went missing,” Kemper explained.

The work wasn’t completed, and as I bundled up in the 39 degree weather, I, too, had to walk away for the day. After four hours of labor at the first cleanup on April 14th, we removed 297 bags of leaves and debris from the one acre landscape of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Piles of leaves and sticks remained, but I’m a pit bull. I wasn’t about to stop.

The following week, I returned to survey the cemetery, combing each section as carefully as I could. My eyes darted from my clipboard to the stones in front of me. I took photos of everything that I thought we may have missed.

As the sunlight peeked through and glittered the ground around me, I glanced to my right. There, standing before me, the headstone resting on its base, was Urial Holmes’ grave.

I fumbled for my phone, emotional and eager to pass along the good news to the Kemper family who had desperately searched under leaves for the remains of Urial. In all caps, I sent a simple text to Kurt: I FOUND URIAL!

Harvey Kemper gazes at his great-grandfather's grave
for the first time in decades with his grandson
Less than two hours later, the family gathered at the resting place of their descendant, overwhelmed and relieved that Urial Holmes had escaped vandalism.

So many others that chose Mount Pleasant as their final resting place weren’t so lucky.

Two weeks after the initial cleanup, a small group gathered again to finish what we had started. Broken branches and twigs were drug to the curb for removal by Grade A Tree Care. With the invaluable help from Cameron Fiser and his team at Monarch Lawn & Landscape, the remaining leaves (which I can only guess would have been another 300 bags’ worth!) were blown into a concentrated area to be mulched by their mower.

Within a few hours, one acre of land, deserted and desecrated, looked once again like a peaceful pioneer cemetery.

Overwhelmed and emotional, I sat back with my camera and the other volunteers and just… Looked. Gazed. Sighed. We did it.

Mount Pleasant Cemetery will survive.

With the help of the Timber Hills Estate HOA, trees will be trimmed and some will be removed. A chainsaw will take care of the newer volunteer trees that, if they remained, would further destroy the earth surrounding the sacred graves that have miraculously survived.

A cemetery now is exposed at the second cleanup April 24th
John Jackson of Integrity Stone, a company that specializes in the restoration of existing stone, answered my call for help. He has volunteered his services to reset the stones that do still remain.

It occurred to me throughout this process that the little community around Martin City really banded together to help save something that has been on my radar for years. We have resurrected the integrity of a sacred space that existed well before Martin City and the influx of suburban development.

It is our duty to preserve what has been left behind. The subject of preservation was an ongoing topic at the cleanup. Efforts must continue.  “Everyone buried here deserves at least that from us,” Kurt Kemper commented as we hauled brush to the curb.

The history of southern Jackson Co. can be found in the many stories left behind 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. 

*More photos below!!
A special thanks to all of the volunteers who helped with this worthy cause:

Adonna Thompson and Avila University's "Dear Neighbor Day" Volunteers
Boy Scout Troop 531
Burr and John McGee, relatives of the Baxter family buried at Mount Pleasant
Cameron Fiser, Monarch Lawn & Landscape
Chris Wilson, relative of the McPherson and Watson families, buried at Mount Pleasant
Don and Lonnie Peters
Euston Hardware
Grade A Tree Care
Helen Van Hecke
Jackson County Advocate
John Humphrey
The Kemper Family, Urial Holmes' Descendants
Kolette Knittel, relative of John E. Watson, buried at Mount Pleasant
Larry and Clara Van Draska
Margo Aldridge
Martin City Telegraph
Laurie Duffey
Sharon Mickelson
Steve Hodgden
Steve Taylor
Timber Hills Estates HOA

To locate the cemetery: From 435, go south on Wornall to 125th Terr and take a left (east). Follow the road around until you see the cemetery on the left.

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