City to take over Memorial Park Cemetery in July

Site was abandoned by prior owner

-Messenger file photo by Chad Thompson
Three Fort Dodge men sit on their riding lawn mowers at Fort Dodge Memorial Park Cemetery on May 29, 2019. Members of the public stepped in to clear overgrown grass from the neglected cemetery in May 2019. Pictured from left are Tony VanEvery, John Williams, and Pat VanEvery.

Fort Dodge Memorial Park Cemetery, which was essentially abandoned by its owner last year, will become city property on July 1.

”It’s ours, so we’re going to embrace it,” Lori Branderhorst, the city’s director of parks, recreation and forestry, told the City Council Monday.

Branderhorst’s department will oversee the cemetery at 3242 Fifth Ave. S. The proposed 2020-2021 budget she presented to the council envisions spending $32,000 to maintain the site, with much of that money, $17,000, paying a company to mow the grass.

Overgrown conditions, including 10-inch-high grass obscuring head stones, were obvious in the days before Memorial Day 2019. Motivated by a challenge Bradley Edgerton, of Fort Dodge, issued on social media, dozens of volunteers showed up at the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend with their own mowers and trimmers to tackle the grass.

It’s not clear how many people pitched in, but Edgerton said he was ”shocked” by the number of volunteers.

While investigating how the cemetery fell into such an overgrown condition, City Manager David Fierke sent police officers to the home of Alan C. Dorothy, who was listed in the Iowa Secretary of State’s records as the organizer of Fort Dodge Memorial Park LLC, to see if he was all right. Fierke said Dorothy told the officers that he was out of business and no longer taking care of the cemetery.

The Iowa Insurance Division, which regulates cemeteries, stepped in and went to court to place the cemetery in the legal status of receivership. During the receivership period, the state agency and the city government teamed up to take care of the cemetery.

Under state law, cities are ultimately responsible for cemeteries, so Fort Dodge will become the owner of the site when the receivership ends on July 1.

Fierke said Monday that the city has received ”great support from the state” during the receivership.

According to Branderhorst, the state gave the city a $20,000 software program for cemetery management.

”It was not a pleasant situation,”said Councilman Terry Moehnke. ”I think we responded well. I think we did a great job bringing it up to what it is today.”

Branderhorst said there are still available plots in the cemetery, although she wasn’t sure how many there are. She said plots will be sold for $600 apiece. Each plot, she said, can hold one vault for a casket or two cremation urns.

The proposed budget envisions $23,000 in revenue, and Branderhorst said the revenue ”will be able to minimize taxpayer burden.”

Councilman Neven Conrad, who is an attorney, said one of his clients showed him a deed for a burial plot that described the site as a ”whites only cemetery.”

”We should definitely change that,” he said.

Branderhorst said no cemetery bylaws or other documents have found. It remains unknown if the whites only rule was ever enforced.