No one loves a scrap more than area historians Jim Beckner and Vickie Beck, especially when it involves preserving a pioneer family cemetery where 12 to 15 unknown Civil War soldiers and other settlers are interred.
Known as the Davis-Smith Cemetery, the quarter-acre plot contains 42 graves, including a Revolutionary War veteran, four Confederate soldiers and three women prisoners who died 150 years ago in the collapse of a Kansas City jail in 1863. Also buried in the cemetery – active from 1840-1880 – are early pioneers and Raytown settlers.
Located on the Raytown-Kansas City line, the cemetery is no longer isolated as it apparently was when it was first plotted on property deeded to John Davis in 1845. Today, the burial ground is just inside a 35-acre island between the eastbound and southbound lanes of Missouri 350 in Kansas City. The island stretches from just east of Noland Road to Westridge Street in Raytown.
One would never know the island property contained a historic cemetery just by looking at it. Up until a week or two ago, “The grounds were overgrown with weeds and brush, and not recognizable as a cemetery,” says Raymore resident Jim Beckner, who is spearheading an effort to preserve the cemetery, using stacks of documentation obtained from Vickie Beck of Independence and others. Vickie first visited the cemetery in 1993 and found it to be deplorable.
“I couldn’t believe that someone would completely disregard this burial ground and put a road through it,” Vickie says, noting she has deep respect for cemeteries, each of which has its own unique story.
At one time, several families actually lived on the property, Jim says, noting a developer eventually purchased the land with the intention of building a huge shopping center there.
The proposed development, though, never got off the ground. Jim says that the property was later sold to another buyer who lost everything – including his life – when the economy turned sour about 10 years ago.
“So, technically, his heirs still own that land,” he says. “But it is tied up with a $6.5 million bankruptcy, and we don’t know how that is going to turn out.”
The intention of the second buyer, Jim says, was to build a shopping center around the family cemetery, after a stone border and a big wrought-iron fence had been put around the cemetery. In addition, a large stone bearing the names of the deceased also was planned at the site.
Says Jim: “He was going to recognize that (those 42 people) were buried there.”
On Saturday, Aug. 9, nearly 100 people gathered under a cloudy sky to recognize, honor and memorialize those buried in the family cemetery, where tombstones decades ago dotted the landscape. Today, there are none.
However, in 1933, one large grave marker was found in the cemetery when the Daughters of the American Revolution visited the site to take a reading of the remaining stones.
“That was the only stone there in 1933,” Jim says, noting the monument was removed for safekeeping. Now the property of the Jackson County Historical Society, the icon is now safely secured at Missouri Town 1855.
However, the native limestone marker – which has been framed – was used as a centerpiece for the 10 a.m. ceremony.
Inscribed on the weathered stone was the following: “Sally, wife of Jas. Landers, died June 14, 1851, aged 20 yrs, 3 mos, 24 dys.”
The epitaph reads: “Remember friends, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me.”
With the ownership of the cemetery property in limbo, Jim and David Jackson, archivist of the Jackson County Historical Society, both agreed the 150th anniversary of the Civil War would be a great time to memorialize the cemetery and the people interred there, since the three women who died in the 1863 jail collapse were buried there during the Civil War.
“So we wanted to make sure not only to honor those people one more time, but to make sure that the new owners, wherever they might be, know we are not going away,” Jim says, adding that “something needs to be done to show respect to these 42 people and give those lost souls a chance to rest in peace.”
Says Jim: “They can develop all 34 and three-quarter acres, but, for gosh sake, respect these people’s burial.”
Although the cemetery’s brush was cleared for the ceremony, Jim went a step further. He used his lawnmower to manicure the area where the program would be.
Dressed in period attire, a four-man color guard opened the ceremony, attended by members of some 12 to 13 organizations and individuals interested in respecting cemeteries and the dead buried in them.
Among those speaking were Vickie Beck, Jim Beckner and David Jackson, who co-authored the book “Lost Souls of the Lost Township” with Paul Peterson. The Davis-Smith Cemetery was part of the “Lost Township.”
To bring life to the 1-hour, 15-minute program, descendants and living re-enactors – some dressed in period attire – helped memorialize the 42 people interred there by telling what they knew about each of them.
In Jim and Vicki’s role in trying to preserve local history, Jim noted an attendee told him after the moving observance: “You made this miserable place seem human.”
Thanks for a job well done, Jim, Vickie and others. We are thrilled you are not going away. Keep up the good work. Victory is in sight.
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.