Sprawling across a scenic knoll and down a gentle slope in eastern Independence is an old cemetery overlooking the Little Blue Valley to the northeast. At U.S. 24 and Blue Mills Road is Salem East Cemetery adjacent to – but not owned – by New East Salem Church. For the past century, the historic cemetery has been governed by the Salem Cemetery Association, which is observing its 100th anniversary.
“Not many cemetery associations have been around 100 years,” treasurer Steve Ferguson says, noting no recognition program is planned. “We just wanted to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the association. As I read through the articles (of incorporation), to become part of the association, you had to buy a cemetery lot,” he says, noting lots were $20 in 1917.
The inscription on the historical Salem Cemetery marker notes – among other things – that Salem Cemetery Association "was formed and incorporated by a group of concerned lot owners interested in the perpetuation, maintenance and improvement of Salem Cemetery."
Steve notes his family has always been involved with the upkeep of Salem Cemetery, where 16 family members are buried. Among them is Melvin Ferguson, the son of Steve's great-grandparents, John R. and Allison Ferguson. Melvin died in 1884 as a young man.
With his wife Julie serving as association secretary, “We want to keep up the cemetery," Steve says
“Having been raised in that (Salem) area, I recognize a lot of old names," he says. "And even if I don't know them, I think it is the idea that Grandpa served and Dad served. I think serving is kind of a tradition. So I guess it means that Julie and I will someday be buried next to (infant son) Ryan.”
As for the cemetery's upkeep, no one did it better, longer or faithfully than the Shrout twins – Charles and Dewitt. At their father's insistence, the brothers began digging graves for the association as a team in their early 20s, continuing their labor of love until Dewitt passed away in 2006 at age 83. The twins, who farmed and operated a dairy farm together just east of the cemetery, were inseparable in their work, even when called to the cemetery to dig a grave or two – regardless of the weather.
Oh, yes! There were days when rain hampered their digging, 95-year-old Charles Shrout recalls in a recent interview at the family farmhouse near the cemetery where he and wife Harriet reside. In later years, they would put up a tent to cover an open grave if it rained, he recalls. “But most times we just dug in the rain.”
And what about those icy, frigid days when the frozen ground was as hard as a rock? No match for the twins. Betty Shrout, Dewitt's widow, recalls the twins “once took most of a day to break through 20 inches of frozen ground using an ax, a wedge and a sledgehammer.
Regardless of circumstances – such as two burials on the same day – the twins were up to the challenge. Two graves were dug without a hitch. Then there was the overnight storm that filled an uncovered grave with water. Nothing to worry about; the brothers were up to the challenge. They dipped out all the water and the funeral proceeded as scheduled
“We always had them ready on time,” Charles says of the countless graves he and DeWitt dug as a team using their own system.
Dewitt's son Clint explains: “They always worked back to back. One of them moved one way and the other moved the opposite way. They worked across each other,” he says, explaining that since one brother was right-handed and the other brother was left-handed, they never got into each other's way.
Happy anniversary, Salem Cemetery Association! Best wishes on beginning a new century of service.
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.