Genealogists look at Cedar Falls' past through cemetery walks

2012-05-17T15:00:00Z 2012-12-03T15:54:45Z Genealogists look at Cedar Falls' past through cemetery walksBy HOLLY HUDSON, holly.hudson@wcfcourier.com Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- As education coordinator for the Cedar Falls Historical Society, Rita Congdon wears many hats --- teacher, tour guide, researcher.

On Tuesday, Congdon and her husband, Richard, donned a few more as they conducted a cemetery walk for the North East Iowa Genealogical Society at Fairview Cemetery.

About 20 participants listened to the Congdons take on the roles of departed Cedar Falls notables, switching hats as they switched characters.

Rita Congdon has been doing the walks for the historical society for four years utilizing both Fairview and Greenwood cemeteries. Tuesday's event, which featured six characters ranging from early pioneers to more recent residents, was an abbreviated version of a walk she presented two years ago.

"The characters I choose are strictly my whim," she said.

She starts with a list of people buried in the cemeteries and whittles it down to about 20 names. She does research to make sure there is enough information to tell their story. Finally, she finds the graves of the people she wants to include.

"I try to find people who made a significant contribution to Cedar Falls," she said, "or someone you would want to know.

"You always wonder if people are going to show up," she said. "But people do show up."

Those that showed up Tuesday got to "meet" some of Cedar Falls' most prominent residents as the Congdons brought the names etched in stone to life.

"I hope you'll recognize some of the names," Rita Congdon said to the group. "Some, it won't matter."

First, participants gathered around the looming, obelisk-shaped stone that marked the grave of Samuel Rownd (1803-1880), an early land developer in the area.

Richard Congdon told how Rownd arrived in Cedar Falls in 1850 and began buying land, eventually acquiring 4,000 acres. Rownd was able to amass such a large amount of property by trading coupons that had been issued to Mexican War veterans for land west of the Mississippi. Rownd bought the coupons from veterans who were not able to use them for 25 cents a piece.

The Rownd barn, built by Samuel's son C.A., still sits on land once owned by the family on South Main Street, and Rownd Street bears the family's name.

Next, participants walked to the grave of L.R. Holmes (1885-1971), marked by a small, simple stone. Holmes was the principal at Lincoln Elementary School for 41 years.

"It is estimated that L.R. Holmes saw 4,000 elementary students come through his school in those 41 years," said Rita Congdon as she told his story.

In fact, she was one of those students.

"I was in sixth grade his last year there," she said. "I remember his farewell banquet at the (University of Northern Iowa) Commons."

Holmes also was the first president of the Black Hawk County Education Association and very active with the Red Cross. Holmes Junior High School carries his name.

Next on the tour was the final resting place of Charles Fields (1844-1910).

As Richard Congdon stood next to the black marble marker, he told of how Fields bought up thousands of acres of land west of Cedar Falls and raised pure bred cattle, hogs, sheep and horses. He also opened the First National Bank, but was not well liked in town. When his bank began to fail, he became even less popular and had to leave town in the middle of the night.

Fields is known for building the historic stone barn southwest of town. The barn was demolished in 2008.

Rita Congdon then led the group to the grave site of Neva Radell (1895-1991) who shared a headstone with her older sister Inez (1893-1981).

The sisters, who never married, were teachers who were brought up to be frugal. They apparently learned that lesson well, because toward the end of their lives, they were able to contribute generously to the community. They started a scholarship at Cedar Falls High School, made a five-figure gift to Sartori Memorial Hospital in memory of their mother and donated $150,000 to the University of Northern Iowa toward the completion of the UNI-Dome.

Richard Congdon then told the story of Joseph Bancroft (1829-1913) who started off as a well digger but went on to purchase four lots along West 12th Street between Franklin and Tremont streets where he began growing and selling trees. Though the business is no longer in the family, Bancroft's Flowers still carries their name.

Rita Congdon's final presentation came as she stood beside a large monument erected in 1876 bearing the words "Iowa soldiers orphans."

She spoke as Fannie Eakins, a 14-year-old girl who, along with her five siblings, were orphaned when her father was killed in battle during the Civil War and her mother died soon after. The marker bears the names of seven children who died at the Soldiers Orphans Home during measles outbreak, including Fannie's younger sister, Margaret.

Copyright 2015 Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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