Nine individuals were showcased in the fifth annual Veterans Cemetery Tour Saturday afternoon at Keokuk’s Oakland Cemetery. The tour is a presentation of the Lee County Veterans Project.
In addition to offering people a chance to know more about those who are buried in Keokuk cemeteries, the tour raises funds to help the American Legion add local veterans’ names to the memorial in Oakland Cemetery.
Five of those highlighted in this year’s tour were veterans. Two others were women with connections to veterans or the Civil War.
At each stop on the tour, the deceased person was portrayed by an actor or described by a presenter, revealing information about the person’s life and death.
Annie Wittenmyer (1827–1900) was presented by Angel Finch of Calvary Baptist Church. Wittenmyer moved to Keokuk after her marriage, where she started the first free school in the city. During the Civil War, she began a long career of service, beginning with joining the Soldier’s Aid Society. Her work in hospitals led her to develop a plan for improving the diets of wounded soldiers, which she had approved and implemented by the War Department. Later, she helped set up a number of orphan homes in Iowa. She is buried in Pennsylvania, but was honored in accordance with the tour’s practice of highlighting one Keokuk citizen buried elsewhere.
Edward Caldwell (died 1910) was presented by Gerome Crayton of Great River Players. Caldwell, a member of the 9th Cavalry, is one of two Buffalo Soldiers buried in the Keokuk National Cemetery. Crayton explained that the name “Buffalo Soldier” was actually given to African American soldiers by Native Americans, who were impressed with the soldiers’ fierceness and determination, reflected in their motto “We Can and We Will.”
Mary Collins (1846–1920) was presented by Tiffany Heath of Calvary Baptist Church. Collins claimed that she was born with a Bible in one hand and a bow and arrow in the other. After attending Keokuk schools, she became a missionary to the Sioux, who called her “Winona.” She was a friend of Sitting Bull and later tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent Native Americans from being exploited in Wild West shows. She is buried with her parents in Oakland Cemetery.
Erie Leech (1826–1891) was presented by David Wendt of Great River Players. In spite of being orphaned in New York, Leech ended up attending a prestigious high school in Ohio. He came to Fort Madison in 1850 and moved later to Keokuk, where he served as clerk of the Half-Breed Tract. During the Civil War, he fought at Pea Ridge with Gen. Samuel Curtis. He served in numerous clerical and political positions in Keokuk and also was World Grand Sire of the Independent Odd Fellows.
Capt. Leo LeBron (1874–1918) was presented by Ernie Paulson of Bluegrass Auction Service. Paulson’s wife, Joy Kirkpatrick, who is a great-grand-niece of LeBron, also shared an album with pictures and news clippings. LeBron, whose maternal grandparents were some of the first settlers in the area, was born in Keokuk. Although he worked in his father’s jewelry store on Main Street in his earlier years, he was determined to be educated as an engineer. He served for a time as Keokuk’s city engineer before joining the military. Later in his military career, he was killed when a German submarine sank his ship, the Tuscania, off the Scottish coast. His body was eventually returned to Keokuk for burial. Camp LeBron in Oklahoma is named for him.
Oliver Conn (1849–1917) was presented by Dylan Finch of Calvary Baptist Church. Conn moved with his parents to Keokuk when he was 8 years old. At age 13, he enlisted as a drummer boy in the Union Army. He was captured in an ambush and spent seven months in prison. After returning to Keokuk, he became a carpenter, married and raised five children.
Verling Hart (1838–1883) was portrayed by Tim Carter, a teacher at Keokuk High School. Hart came to Keokuk with his parents as a teenager, planning to follow his father’s trade as a blacksmith. Later he joined the Army and fought in the Civil War. He made a career of the military, serving mostly in the West. His wife and children, who usually remained with him at his posts, were temporarily at home in Keokuk when he died of heart problems brought on by an illness at Fort McKinney, Wyo. His body was returned to Keokuk for burial.
Harriet Townsend (1852–1934) was presented by Christina Boltz of Calvary Baptist Church. Townsend was the mother of Julius Townsend, a Medal of Honor winner. Another son, Betram, was a valedictorian at Keokuk High School and also served in the Spanish-American War.
The saddest story on the tour was that of Hannah Tasker, presented by Persephanie Stark of Calvary Baptist Church. On Jan. 11, 1850, Tasker was traveling from her home in Quincy, Ill., to her brother’s wedding in Keokuk with her parents, her husband and her young daughter. The men were determined to cross the Mississippi River on the ice at Warsaw, Ill., although they had been warned it was not safe. They almost had reached Alexandria, Mo., when the carriage broke through the ice. Tasker was found dead with 2-year-old Martha clasped in her arms.
Kirk Brandenberger of the Keokuk Area Tourism and Convention Bureau and Pastor John Heath and Richard Lowary of Calvary Baptist Church drove the busses for the tour.
Linda Altheide, who created the wreaths for each grave site, also took tickets.
Organizer Terry Altheide noted that only about a dozen people came out to this year’s tour.
“It was a very disappointing day,” he said.
He hopes next year’s tour will have better attendance.
He also noted that the Lee County Veterans Project still has wreaths available for sale. If desired, these will be placed on grave sites by project members on Memorial Day. Wreaths are $20.
To buy a wreath, help with next year’s tour or get more information about the Lee County Veterans Project, contact Altheide at 319-795-6289 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.