Few things in Des Moines are as old and none contain more history than the grassy knolls and stately trees of Woodland Cemetery. The stories told by the monuments and headstones combine to form the history of the city as it has passed through civil and world wars, epidemics and natural disasters as well as the normal course of birth, life, and death. Passing through the narrow drives of the cemetery, you see stone etchings of the names of many citizens from our past who helped build Des Moines and are now a part of everyday life in our city’s landscape . . . street and building names like Savery, Kenworthy, Ingersoll, Hubbell and Kaplan.
This cemetery was planned prior to the incorporation of the town of ‘Fort Des Moines’ on September 22, 1851. In 1848, area farmers on the outskirts of the city - John Dean, Abel Cain, Lewis Jones, Henry Everly, and Jonathan Lyon -donated the first 5 1/2 acres for Woodland Cemetery. In 1857 the city of Des Moines became the owner of Woodland. 36½ acres were added to the cemetery in 1864 from land purchased from J. B. Bausman. Today it totals 65 acres, including the adjoining St. Ambrose Cemetery. St. Ambrose was deeded over to the city by the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines in 1923. Woodland and St. Ambrose eventually became an oftentimes forgotten part of the city’s inner core, remembered only by neighboring residents, genealogists and distant relatives of the nearly 40,000 people buried in the park.
Lots in Block #1 were purchased in November of 1849. Some of the owners are L.W. Winchester who transferred his ownership of lot #5 to Bella McCoy; Mrs. S.E. Lyon, lot #15 and Conrad Saylor, lot #31. The first burial was that of Thomas Casady (1849-1850) according to the Polk County Cemetery Records, Vol. 1 book. Thomas was the son of early Des Moines pioneer lawyer and Judge Phineas M. Casady.
With completion of the new ML King Parkway in 2004, Woodland has once again become a very visible part of the everyday life of citizens and visitors in our city.
While the tears of relatives have long since disappeared, tributes to their loved ones remain as windows to our city’s past. Each Memorial Day, fewer and fewer descendants remain to decorate graves, instead history-seekers visit the cemetery to explore Des Moines’ past and search for family lineage.
Sitting high on a hill in the cemetery is the Children’s Monument, likely to be one of the most unusual in any cemetery. In Des Moines’ early days, an orphanage served as the first home for many babies who were brought there by mothers who could not care for them. Many of the infants died and were buried in a small plot at Woodland in wooden, crate-like caskets, one on top of the other in stacks of three. The graves were unmarked, hence the single monument. Although 44 names are listed on the monument, many more are listed as “unknown.”
Interments continue to be made each year in Woodland/St. Ambrose; the two most recent ones occurred in November of 2014. The most recent sale of spaces was completed in September 2014.