Pioneer Cemetery preserves history, prepares for future
West Campus landmark unites university, city
Visiting Pioneer Cemetery is more than a history lesson for Bob Malott.
Though the cemetery is home to Lawrence’s oldest graves — including several victims of William Quantrill’s 1863 raid on the city — it’s also the final resting place for some of the most influential people in Kansas University history.
That list includes Malott’s parents, former Chancellor Deane Malott and his wife, Eleanor.
“I go out there and visit the cemetery every time I’m in Lawrence,” said Bob Malott, who lives in Kenilworth, Ill. “It’s a very nice little corner of Lawrence, and I hope they preserve it.”
Preservation hasn’t always been a priority. The cemetery’s past includes more than 60 years of neglect. Vandals have stolen gravestones and used them for target practice. Cows and goats once grazed the overgrown grass.
But on this Memorial Day, historians and KU officials see a promising future for the graveyard, balancing history with new burials.
Founded in 1854 as Oread Cemetery, the graveyard was the only one serving the area, and was about two miles outside town. Now, the 5.8-acre plot is on KU’s West Campus, along Iowa Street just south of the Lied Center, in the center of Lawrence.
According to Karl Gridley, a local historian who completed a survey of the cemetery for the Historic Mount Oread Foundation, the first burial there was in 1854, when a young boy named Moses Pomeroy died of “an Illinois fever.”
A year later, a burial at the cemetery gained national attention. Thomas Barber, who lived near Clinton, was gunned down Dec. 6, 1855, by pro-slavery forces in one of the first acts of the Bleeding Kansas period before the Civil War.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem, “Burial of Barber,” which was first published in The National Era magazine in 1856. Fanatical abolitionist John Brown later cited Barber’s death as a motivating factor in his fight against slavery.
In spring 1862, 18 members of the 13th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry who were encamped near Lawrence on their way to Mississippi died of typhoid fever and were buried at Oread Cemetery.
Perhaps the biggest event in the cemetery’s history was August 1863, when Quantrill stormed Lawrence, killing between 150 and 200 residents. Gridley said about 70 victims were quickly buried in a trench at the cemetery, with temporary stones marking the site.
“They had to do it that way,” Gridley said. “They had to get people buried to avoid disease.”
All but forgotten
Despite its historic residents, Oread Cemetery was all but forgotten when Oak Hill Cemetery opened in 1865. Oak Hill was closer to downtown, more parklike and more accessible than Oread, which is on a hill.
|These events are planned today to commemorate the holiday:7 a.m.: Avenue of Flags flag-raisings, Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.9 a.m.: Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars ceremonies to honor fallen military personnel, Maple Grove Cemetery, junction of U.S. Highways 24 and 40.10:10 a.m.: American Legion formal ceremonies to honor fallen military personnel, Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.11 a.m.: Veterans of Foreign Wars ceremonies to honor fallen military personnel, Memorial Park Cemetery, 1517 E. 15th St.|
Most of the Quantrill raid victims were moved to Oak Hill by 1872. That year, two people were buried in Oread, and no other burials would take place until the early 1950s.
The farmer who owned the land deeded it to the city of Lawrence in 1867. Plants overgrew the gravestones for much of the next 60 years, and some of the stones were broken or stolen. Today, many graves remain unmarked because of missing stones.
“That’s true even today, if you look at rural cemeteries,” Gridley said. “It’s just a matter of whether families are still around or anybody cares. Often families move away and the smaller (cemeteries) fall into disrepair.”
The city increased upkeep at the property in 1928, when it also renamed the plot Pioneer Cemetery.
Former KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy convinced the city to give the plot to KU in 1953. The KU Endowment Association now owns the land and sets the rules for burials. KU crews tend the area.
Pioneer’s new life
The ashes of about 35 people now are buried each year in 2-by-2-foot or 4-by-4-foot plots at the cemetery. To conserve space, no caskets are allowed.
University faculty and staff who served at least 15 years are eligible for burial there. So are Distinguished Service Citation winners, trustees of the Endowment Association and members of the Alumni Association’s board of directors.
About 450 people have been buried at Pioneer Cemetery since it reopened in 1968, said Daryl Beene, vice president of the Endowment Association. The names on newer tombstones read like a list of campus buildings: Nichols, Ellsworth, Oldfather, Youngberg, Malott, McCollum.
“There’s really not the ‘hometown’ there used to be 20 or 30 years ago,” Beene said. “People live a number of places in their lives. They don’t really have a hometown that might have a family burial plot. They find they have a love for the university and take advantage of the availability of Pioneer Cemetery.”
That was why Deane and Eleanor Malott chose their plots.
“They lived a lot of places in their lives, and in their judgment there was no place like Lawrence,” Bob Malott said. “They enjoyed that part of their career more than anything. They thought very highly of the Pioneer Cemetery, and they insisted that’s where they wanted to be buried.”
Beene said about 300 people were on a list guaranteeing them a plot, which is provided for free.
About 500 plots are laid out on a cemetery master plan, though Beene said there was room for more. And the cemetery could be expanded by as many as 10 acres, he said.
Today, Pioneer Cemetery is a mix of new and old.
Small, flat gravestones in clusters mark the spots where people with KU ties were inurned.
Many of the Civil War-era stones seem randomly placed. Others — such as where the Wisconsin soldiers are buried — are aligned in neat rows.
The old gravestones once stood upright, but many now are laid flat and encased in concrete to protect against the elements and people seeking Civil War souvenirs.
Four gravestones remain of Quantrill raid victims. The stone of Chester Hay simply states: “Killed in the Lawrence massacre.” Another Quantrill victim’s stone, recently given anonymously to the Watkins Community Museum of History, will eventually be returned to the cemetery.
No one knows how many people are buried at Pioneer Cemetery, because some graves were unmarked from the beginning and others have lost their markers. The Endowment Association uses ground-probing equipment to determine where unmarked graves might be when determining where to make new burials.
Gridley said the KU connection to the cemetery had allowed its historical value to be revived after being forgotten for years.
“People are looking back and realizing what a treasure we have,” he said. “It’s really an impressive time capsule of early Lawrence history.”
|Here’s a look at some of those buried at Pioneer Cemetery:Civil War era:¢ Thomas Barber, 52, killed Dec. 6, 1855. Barber, one of the earliest abolitionist martyrs, was immortalized in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.¢ George W. Coat, 28, victim of Quantrill’s raid Aug. 21, 1863.¢ Chester Hay, 28, victim of Quantrill’s raid. He had been involved in the Battle of Hickory Point, near present-day Oskaloosa.¢ Samuel Jones, victim of Quantrill’s raid. A letter from his sister said he was “shot through the heart.” His wife died about a month later, apparently never recovering from the trauma.¢ Moses Pomeroy, young boy, buried in 1854. He was the first person buried at the cemetery.Burials since 1968:¢ Fred Ellsworth, 1895-1965. Longtime executive secretary of the Kansas University Alumni Association. Namesake: Ellsworth Hall and the Ellsworth Medallion, given annually for service to KU.¢ Deane Malott, 1898-1996. Chancellor from 1939 to 1951. Namesake: Malott Hall.¢ Elmer McCollum, 1879-1967. KU alum who discovered vitamins A and D. Namesake: McCollum Laboratories and McCollum Hall.¢ Raymond C. Moore, 1892-1974. Longtime employee of the Kansas Geological Survey. Namesake: Moore Hall.¢ Raymond F. Nichols, 1903-1999. Chancellor from 1972 to 1973. Namesake: Nichols Hall.¢ Charles H. Oldfather, 1920-1996. Law faculty member, university counsel and KU benefactor. Namesake: Oldfather Studios.¢ Henry Shenk, 1906-1989. Chairman of the department of health, sport and exercise science. Namesake: Shenk athletic fields.¢ Lawrence Woodruff, 1902-1986. Former dean of students. Namesake: Woodruff Auditorium.— Sources: Journal-World archives and “Pioneer Cemetery Survey” by Karl Gridley.|