Editor’s Note: Concern for Community is a fundamental cooperative principle. It’s a philosophy that guides your local electric co-op and how directors, employees and members support their areas. Gene Manternach, featured in this article, is a director representing Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative and Central Iowa Power Cooperative. To share a community story with us, email: email@example.com
By Daniel Charland
Five old limestone gravestones have recently been restored at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Cascade. These stones mark the burial sites of members of the May family who died in 1874, and their restoration was arranged by Gene Manternach, a distant relation who felt a connection while researching his ancestry.
“It has a lot to do with my search for family history,” Manternach says. “When I was young, my dad told me that my great-grandparents settled the farm that I now own. It was originally the May farm. Searching through my ancestors, I discovered that my great-grandmother’s mother died when she wasn’t even a year old. Her father remarried, probably within a year of it, and he had another child with his second wife. I discovered that this great-great-aunt of mine married the oldest May brother, so it wasn’t a direct relation.”
Manternach says that the story of the May family is a sad one of sickness, as many of the May children died of smallpox when they were young.
“My great-grandmother’s half-sister married the oldest son of the May family who wasn’t there when smallpox hit, which is why he survived,” Manternach explains. “The kids started dying, and it had to be something like smallpox because my dad said that when they died, someone had to wrap them in a blanket and pass their bodies through an open window because nobody would come into the house. From what I understand, these bodies were taken directly to the cemetery to be buried. I don’t know if they had a box or anything because they had to be buried right away with no service.”
He adds, “These stones are very close to my great-grandparents, and I’d noticed they were in sad shape for some time, but when I discovered this terrible story, it got to me. I just couldn’t imagine in my heart and mind what was going through the minds of the parents and kids as their brothers and sisters were dying right in front of them.”
Manternach decided to help restore the stones and inquired with the cemetery on how it could be done. He spent the next couple of years doing periodic search to find people he could hire with the proper certifications to work on the stones. Eventually, he found the Monticello Monument Company and hired Pam Kraus to do the stonework restoration. Concrete restoration of the stone bases was arranged through Tom Connolly of Connolly Construction.
“We met at the cemetery around midyear, and I showed him what I wanted to be done. A month or two later he sent me a price. Pam had already removed the stones to a shop to start working on them, so he just had to pour the new concrete slab. The cemetery let Pam use the maintenance shop to work on the stones, because, out of the five, two were broken and she had to repair the breaks. The others were leaning pretty hard,” he says.
Manternach adds that he has learned in this process that families have a greater responsibility to maintain their gravestones than they often realize, as the perpetual care department of the cemetery only mows the grass and doesn’t have the resources for stone restoration.
He intends to continue restoring other old stones from the May family in the cemetery and wishes to encourage other families to take care of their stones as well.
Article and photos reprinted with permission from the Cascade (Iowa) Pioneer/Daniel Charland, author.