A weathered headstone at Mount Hope Cemetery in Spring Prairie marks the grave of Palmer Gardner, who considered the first settler in Walworth County. The once-neglected cemetery is open again thanks to the efforts of the Burlington Historical Society and the Town of Spring Prairie. (Photo by Ed Nadolski)

Pioneer cemetery restored and set to reopen to the public

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

Abandoned for 130 years and at one point so overgrown that it was unrecognizable, tiny Mount Hope Cemetery in the Town of Spring Prairie has been restored and will open to the public again this month.

The cemetery, which dates to the mid-1800s and is the resting place for two of the area’s prominent settlers, will be rededicated during a ceremony scheduled for June 25.

The re-opening has been a decade in the making. It began with a clean up organized by the Burlington Historical Society in 2007, continued as a project of anthropology students and their professor from Wisconsin Lutheran College and culminated with the transfer of the property to the Town of Spring Prairie, which has since established a volunteer management board that will operate the cemetery at no cost to town residents.

According to Mount Hope Cemetery Board President Tom Bolfert, the cemetery, at W698 Spring Prairie Rd., has a long and interesting history that will now be preserved through the recent efforts to restore it.

The oldest recorded burial – that of 21-month-old Mary Pool – dates to 1846. However, according to the cemetery board, there is some evidence that burials may go back as far as 1835. The last recorded burial was 1888 before the land fell into more than a century of neglect.

Historians and others researching the cemetery learned that among the people buried there are Palmer Gardner, considered the first settler in Walworth County, and Charles Dyer, the father of Burlington’s first physician, Edward G. Dyer, for whom Burlington’s current intermediate school is named.

“Several infants and children are also buried at Mount Hope, along with at least eight men and women in their 20s – a testament to the hard times early settlers endured,” the cemetery board said in a news release regarding the rededication ceremony.

According to the cemetery board:

  • The cemetery was originally part of a 160-acre parcel purchased by Charles Dyer from the federal government in 1839. In 1851, the 250-by-250-foot plot, along with a 33-foot-wide access road was sold to the trustees of the Mount Hope Cemetery for $25. The land was part of the Stowell family farm for more than a century.
  • In 1929 members of the Burlington Historical Society visited the site, which by then had been abandoned for decades. They found it so overgrown with brush they could only identify 12 gravesites. Following additional research in 1930, the society was successful in identifying 28 people buried there.
  • In 2007 the Burlington Historical Society, led by Vice President Don Vande Sand, again took up the cause. With a group of volunteers comprised of faculty and students from Wisconsin Lutheran College and other community groups, the society began cleaning up the cemetery and mapping the graves.
  • Three years later a volunteer team from Wisconsin Lutheran College, led by anthropology professor Ned Farley, began scanning the land with a ground-penetrating radar in an attempt to locate long-forgotten gravesites that had no markers. Their research revealed a total of 38 burial sites, though some may contain more than one body. The team also determined there are approximately 300 more burial plots available in the cemetery.
  • In 2014, landowner Bob Stowell ceded ownership of the cemetery and, as required by state law, ownership reverted to the Town of Spring Prairie.

Since then, according to the cemetery board, the town has installed a road to the cemetery, secured additional land for parking and mapped out additional burial plots that may be purchased by “people desiring a peaceful, pastoral setting for their final resting place.”

According to Bolfert, all of the work was accomplished without with donated funds, materials and labor at no cost to town taxpayers.

Going forward, the cemetery will be self-funded using revenues generated by the sale of new burial plots.

The rededication ceremony will begin at noon June 25 and will feature a ribbon cutting and remarks by local officials. Farley, the professor of anthropology from Wisconsin Lutheran College, will present a historical overview of the cemetery. The event will continue with an open house featuring light refreshments from 12:30 to 4 p.m.

 

If you go…

What: Rededication of Mount Hope Cemetery, W698 Spring Prairie Rd., Burlington

When: Sunday, June 25, from 12 to 4 p.m.

Schedule: 12 p.m. – Remarks and ribbon cutting; 12:15 p.m. – Historical overview presented by Professor Ned Farley; 12:30 to 4 p.m. – Light refreshments and open house.

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