Students pave the way for new memorial marker
History isn’t so much a straight line as it is a winding road to the present day.
The evolving lens through which we view the past informs how it’s viewed by each new generation.
And it was a couple years ago that the latest generation, a group of fifth-grade students from Graettinger-Terril, pioneered a new trail through the local history of the Iowa Great Lakes leading to an updated understanding of the area’s most well-known historical event.
Shayla Hunefeld always takes her class to the Abbie Gardner Cabin & Museum at the conclusion of the school year after learning about Iowa history.
“It’s a nice place to take them where they can make a personal connection with history in their own backyard,” Hunefeld said.
They didn’t know it at the time, but this wouldn’t be the culmination of their yearlong study of Iowa history, but rather the beginning of a new journey.
After going through the museum and cabin, looking through the artifacts and watching a video, students dispersed around the grounds and some gathered at a low-slung rectangular metal fence near the monument.
There are two stone markers nearby, one talking about the Gardner cabin and another about the proposed site of the Luce cabin.
“So due to what we had learned about history and the pioneers and the size of things built back then we thought that frame was to show where the Luce cabin was supposed to be,” Hunefeld said. “That’s when Ed Purdy, the docent at the site, heard us talking and said no, that it was actually a mass grave site.”
Some of the students immediately wondered why there wasn’t a marker. Perhaps it was because it wasn’t known who actually was buried there.
It turned out that wasn’t quite true either and that at least 16 people were known to have been interred at the site, victims of the Spirit Lake Massacre that occurred in 1857 among early area settlers and a band of Santee Sioux led by chief Inkpaduta.
“That was when the students became upset and wondered how people could be buried there with no marker saying who they were,” Hunefeld said.
As more students gathered in the area and learned what was happening, it became apparent they wanted to rectify the situation and make a change.
“We wanted to get something done,” said Isabella Anderson. “We didn’t like the fact that there was nothing there. Even though we were fifth-graders at the time we wanted to show that we could do it.”
Hunefeld said they’d talked about the term “legacy” in school as well as about the perseverance of Abbie Gardner.
They would secure the former and need plenty of the latter as they embarked on the project of getting a marker in place to memorialize those pioneers interred at the burial site.
Still determined to do something after being told it could be a very long process, their work soon got underway.
Hunefeld got started by getting in contact with the State Historical Society of Iowa and connected with historical sites manager Michael Plummer.
“I told him the story with these students who desperately wanted to make this change and that I wanted to show these students they could do anything they could set their mind to,” Hunefeld. “At this time the kids were just waiting — the one thing they were worried about was this was right at the end of the school year and they were worried the project might get passed on to the next class.”
Instead Hunefeld was able to talk with the principals in both district buildings and move back and forth to keep the students updated on the progress.
In the meantime they conducted hours upon hours of research to make sure they had an accurate list of names of all the pioneers interred at the site.
“So while we’re waiting on word from the historical society on how to move forward they began that process,” Hunefeld said. “We felt we needed to dig deeper and make sure the names were all correct.”
“We learned you can’t just go off one source or one site. You have to check a lot to make sure you have the right information,” Elizabeth Bisgaard said. “We also learned how important history is and that we had to have teamwork and perseverance. It brought us closer together too because it took a lot of patience. We had never done anything like that and it took the whole class to do it.”
Not only did they ensure accuracy of the names, they found another one entirely, increasing the number of settlers in the mass grave to 17 — six adults and 11 children.
After some brainstorming and discussion the students also agreed the site needed a stone marker. Something that would stand the test of time.
That meant the fundraising phase of the project was up next.
Their first event was a bake sale held in conjunction with the annual pancake fundraiser hosted by the Graettinger Fire Department.
The students operated a booth, made brochures and answered questions from every inquisitive visitor.
They set a goal of $1,000 and raised well over half the amount at that first event.
For Teagan Hanson and Sullivan Hall, their favorite parts of the project came from going door-to-door at area businesses.
“It was really fun dropping off brochures and explaining to businesses what we were doing and why we were doing it,” Hall said. “We learned a lot about speaking and leadership, especially taking charge of things. Not to mention whenever we were telling people about it we had to speak clearly and explain all the details.”
They clearly explained it well and raised the money needed to purchase a stone from Ruthven Rocks.
At this point those fifth-graders had become seventh-grade students and near the beginning of the 2020-21 school year they gathered once again at the Abbie Gardner Cabin & Museum.
This time for a dedication ceremony.
They told the story of the Spirit Lake Conflict.
They told the story of the pioneers buried where they fell in 1857, later exhumed and reinterred together in 1894.
And they told the story of how 126 years later they finally have a memorial marker recognizing them in their place of rest.
“It’s one thing to talk about the dates, but to actually do the math and know that many years had gone by since they were moved there and it took this class to change that,” Hunefeld said. “We were able to go back to the site later with just our small group and have a moment to ourselves and realize the magnitude of what they accomplished.”
The significance has started to sink in for the students.
“Having helped with this project we know their story so well they’re not just names anymore. We feel like we know them,” Olivia Anderson added. “When it happened it felt like it was a weight off our shoulders to know they could be at peace and be remembered.”
His grandfather grabbed a shock of his own thinning gray hair and dragged a finger across his forehead.
It was a pretty vivid introduction to distant family history for a young John Burkholder, who was spending time with his grandparents at their north Georgia ranch.
“I was watching ‘Gunsmoke’ or something and when something about someone getting scalped came up,” Burkholder said. “So I asked my grandmother what that meant and she told me to go ask my grandfather.”
That was when he said that his grandfather, Burkholder’s great-great-grandfather Robert Bruce Mathieson, had been scalped and made the motion across his own forehead.
“I was probably five years old at the time so it definitely made my eyes bug out a bit,” Burkholder said. “As I got older more of the family history came out and I learned he had been killed at Spirit Lake.”
Mathieson had emigrated from Scotland and was living in Delaware County in eastern Iowa with his wife and four kids.
Burkholder actually has the naturalization papers as well as an old ambrotype photograph of Mathieson and his wife.
When land in northwest Iowa opened up he went out with a group of settlers to get set up while his family stayed back.
“According to family legend the day his wife received a letter in Earlsville that the cabin was about finished and that the family could come out that spring was the same day as the massacre,” Burkholder said.
Burkholder, 68, now lives in California and has visited the Abbie Gardner Sharp Cabin & Museum in the past with his family.
The park’s main monument lists the names of all those killed during the conflict, including his great-great-grandfather, but what he didn’t know at the time was that Mathieson was actually laid to rest just a handful of steps away.
Originally the settlers had been buried near where they fell until they were later unearthed in 1894 and brought to the site of the Abbie Gardner Sharp Cabin.
It took another 126 years before the efforts of the Graettinger-Terril students resulted in a stone marker indicating the mass burial site with the names of everyone interred.
“The teacher and students were concerned why their grave wasn’t labeled and they were seemingly interred without identification, so that was the reason for the whole project,” Burkholder said. “Mrs. Hunefeld shared with me some photos and videos of that dedication day. I thought that was pretty cool. I was impressed that these kids on a history day trip acknowledged that, hey, maybe this can be improved upon. It’s always good to review history — the lens through which we view history is always changing and changes our interpretation — it’s good to challenge that periodically and I was so impressed that these kids did that. They made the history more accurate and meaningful.”
THE TOUR GUIDE
Several groups of students had made their way through the site during Ed Purdy’s four years as docent at the Abbie Gardner Cabin & Museum in Arnolds Park.
But the 5th-grade class from Graettinger-Terril in 2019 would prove to be unique.
Like most everyone, Purdy had been under the impression that an area surrounded by a low-slung iron fence to the east of the monument was the proposed site of the Harvey Luce cabin.
“That’s what the plaque said. I thought it was a little strange they’d built a cabin 200 feet away from the other cabin and shortly before that class came I was doing some additional research and discovered the fact that it was a mass burial site of some of the other pioneers killed in the massacre,” Purdy said.
He was reading through the historical Annals of Iowa and found a segment detailing the allocation of funds for building the monument in the early 1890s and with it funds allocated for the disinterment of some of the other pioneers and their reinterment in the plot at the Abbie Gardner Cabin site.
“That was something of a revelation,” Purdy said. “And so when the group came to that location I mentioned to them that the existing plaque was not accurate and that it was indeed the burial ground of those other pioneers. The thing I think is inspirational is that as soon as I mentioned that, probably three or four of them immediately said ‘that’s not right!’ I would venture a guess that 90 percent of the time that would have ended it.”
But not with this group.
“These kids and their teacher followed through,” Purdy said. “When I talk about Abbie Gardner I try to emphasize perseverance. Abbie had that and triumphed over her difficulties and that’s what I think these kids did with their teacher’s help. They raised the money. They found out the names of the people buried there and persevered through a lot of stumbling blocks and had to jump through a lot of hoops. To get that accomplished is an amazing feat.”
Purdy has had numerous visitors remark to him this summer that they had no idea that there was a mass burial site at that location and appreciated the new marker in place.
And plans are in the works to move the marker for the proposed site of the Luce cabin to a new location.
“We’ve established a great amount of evidence that suggests the location of the Harvey Luce cabin was closer to where the miniature golf course is not far from the south side of the Roof Garden,” Purdy said.
All these updates to the accuracy of local history thanks to the perseverance of a group of middle school students.
“I think the rest of my life I’ll remember that scene with those students gathered and saying right away that it wasn’t right,” Purdy said. “It was inspirational and something they’ll carry for the rest of their lives. Not just in terms of history but also in their case a realization that they can do great things if they set their minds to it and do the hard work.”
AT THE STATE LEVEL
Michael Plummer started in his role as historical sites manager with the State Historical Society of Iowa in April of 2019 and shortly thereafter an inquiry came through the roadside historical marker program that falls under his purview.
“They wanted to see if a roadside marker could be added to the Abbie Gardner Sharp site, but adding something to one of the historic sites isn’t within the scope of that program,” Plummer said. “So I got in touch with the applicant, who turned out to be the teacher, Shayla Hunefeld, who explained to me what was going on and I was really captivated by not only this missing piece of history that should have been at the site but was not, and taken by the ownership and interest shown by these students.”
Plummer noted that the historical society is always seeking ways to connect Iowans and visitors to the state with the real history embodied in the sites.
In this instance the students had already made a strong connection and wanted to do more.
“Here was this group of students already pointing in the direction we try to point other people,” Plummer said. “And young students too, not high school or college, but fifth-graders. That really spoke to me. I felt it was important to encourage them in whatever small way I could and let them know their voices were heard.”
While the students did the legwork, brainstormed ideas for the marker, researched the names that would be inscribed and raised funds, Plummer’s role was to help them navigate the rules and protocols of the historical society and make the process as easy as possible.
“Shayla really helped me understand the importance of the education and character building components to this — that even if we could do it, it was more important for the students to see this project to its conclusion. I think very highly of her and her abilities as an educator and motivator of young people. I’m so glad she reached out. She and her students couldn’t have done a better job or been better partners,” Plummer said. “I can take no credit for what’s at the site today. It was entirely her and her class. They really did all the work and I think at the end of the day it’s certainly a great benefit to the site and adds texture to the history. And hopefully at a higher level it was a way to demonstrate to the students that if something is important to them, they do have a voice and through their hard work and skills they can build a coalition and make a positive change in the world.”