July 31, 2018
Suzanne Lehr and Mount Mora Cemetery
DEFINITION: Eager to learn or know; inquisitive; arousing interest.
Mount Mora Cemetery, home to 14,000 to 18,000 deceased individuals, is curiously and remarkably alive. This 20-acre plot near historic Frederick Avenue serves as a living history museum, keeping its iron gates open to a constant source of visitors, questions and answers — thanks to the uncommon dedication of Suzanne Lehr and her team of trustees and volunteers.
Established in 1851, Mount Mora is one of the oldest operating cemeteries in St. Joseph. Lehr became intrigued with the cemetery in 2001, just after her retirement, and quickly learned that the green and winding 20 acres represent so much more than a typical cemetery.
“I didn’t like history in high school, as I’m not fascinated by memorizing names of battles and dates,” says Lehr. “But the human interest stories … that really captured my attention and my imagination as I began learning more about Mount Mora. Truly, it’s one of the most fascinating places anyone could visit.”
“There are very few cemeteries – maybe none – that can say they are this connected to local, regional, national, international, and galactic history,” says Lehr. “Our connection to all facets of history makes Mount Mora so unusual. And this also makes it so much fun.”
Questions, Answers and More Questions: “Famous “Residents” Have So Much to Say
Mount Mora is a constant point of interest for visitors from across the United States, the nation and the world. “I get emails and phone calls weekly from people asking about ancestors or relatives buried there,” says Lehr. “In almost every case, I end up learning something new about a Mount Mora resident. I think I gain more from the inquiries than those who are looking for information about their relatives.”
Lehr can be considered the curator of hundreds of fascinating Mount Mora stories. She has a mental map of dozens of names, dates and stones – and an even larger mental collection of facts and stories about the families. Many of these stories center around people who made an impact on the state, the nation or the world, explains Lehr. And many are being carefully archived and stored for generations to come. Her friend, Barbara Turner, has been an enormous help over the years in also researching and adding an immense amount of information to the Mount Mora website.
Mount Mora is the resting place for three Missouri governors; a man lost at sea on the Lusitania sinking; and the Owen sister, who invented culottes when a long skirt didn’t lend itself to spelunking and soil study around the globe. Nearly every war is represented among the “residents,” as Lehr says, including veterans of the Civil War, both World Wars and Vietnam. There’s a Civil War surgeon, who assisted at Gettysburg and treated both sides. Early physicians, inventors and entrepreneurs – many whose names remain on area buildings today – remind visitors of the incredible pace of innovation of the last century. The man who embalmed Jesse James and the first licensed mortician and embalmer in the United States are buried at Mount Mora.
Humble pioneer graves, some with only the first name of a beloved child, speak of courage and tragedy. Two Pony Express riders and an English baronet are laid to rest at Mount Mora, along with accomplished writers, musicians and thespians. Among these are musician Hugh McNutt, who played with John Phillips Sousa’s band, and Ava Lyon, newspaper journalist, who covered the story of the Passion Play. The Passion Play – now a global show depicting the life of Jesus Christ – was developed in Germany and performed at the Krug Park Bowl in St. Joseph when it was brought out of Germany to the United States.
It’s All About “Community”
Lehr and the Mount Mora Preservation and Restoration Association, a volunteer group who works to maintain and restore the cemetery, want to see it keep its gates open as a place for connecting people with history and to the families who came before. They research, photograph and, document the graves; critical information that’s available for those searching the Mount Mora website. The website is an entry point for people as they search for family names on their genealogical journeys. Lehr says the rise of online ancestry search as a popular hobby in the past few years has also spurred an increase in calls, questions and interest about Mount Mora.
“Mount Mora is a community and it’s connected to all aspects of our community today,” says Lehr. “Our goals are to maintain this community of residents and stories as best we can, with respect, so that future generations can continue to learn.”
When the weather is favorable, Lehr said she spends time at the cemetery researching almost daily. She spends many hours per week at her computer, identifying names and dates and matching them up with tombstone photos – a popular request she receives from calls and emails. She also visits with many drive-through visitors at the cemetery and assists them in their search for a particular grave. Often, Lehr is in the right place at the right time to help a visitor on their quest for information. Last summer, she helped guests from Australia who were taking photographs during the 2017 eclipse. But that’s just the start.
Bringing the community of residents at Mount Mora to life with an educational focus is an area where Lehr and her team of volunteers clearly shine. The annual Voices of the Past living history event sells out months in advance. Held in the fall, Lehr selects a cast of characters to portray key factual stories about those buried at Mount Mora. Guests are escorted by bus to the gates, then guided by Lehr herself as Jane Kemper of the mid-1800s, and sometimes accompanied by Mrs. Landis (Sharon Kosek) the wife of Israel Landis, one of founder Simeon Kemper’s cemetery business partners.
With the historic costumes, well-rehearsed accents and torch lighting, it’s a memorable teaching moment that continues to connect hundreds of residents and visitors to the awesome collection of lives, experiences and innovations Mount Mora holds. Proceeds from the event, and other guided tours throughout the year, go right back into preservation, restoration and research. Many Eagle Scout projects, along with donations of time and resources from community organizations, help sustain the cemetery and its future.
“Our work and our events at Mount Mora are truly living history and educational projects. We don’t permit paranormal groups. We’re not about Halloween, ghosts or anything related. We’re about real-life stories. They’re much more fascinating than anything someone could make up,” says Lehr.
Tickets are already moving quickly for the fall 2018 Voices of the Past living history tour, and Lehr says one of the characters is a woman who was born in 1818.
“Think about that,” she says. “That’s 200 years ago. There’s so much history here in these characters because they go so far back. This woman talks about how the wolves were howling so loudly at night that it was difficult for her to sleep upon her arrival to early St. Joseph. It’s remarkable – the way things were, and how far we’ve come.”
From a visual perspective, the property is a never-ending series of surprises. The massive iron gates and columns lead to curving, paved paths rather than typical square cemetery design. Lehr explains that the design was created by architect Walter Angelo Powell, whose son and daughter-in-law are buried in the cemetery. Powell worked as an architect in Washington D.C. As a young man there he served under Robert Mills in designing the extensions to the Capitol, the U.S. Treasury Building and the Washington Monument.
“He arrived here during an architectural renaissance and liked what he saw,” says Lehr. “He created a new plan for the cemetery, under the direction of cemetery trustees, featuring creative sections, curvilinear roads, special landscaping and other unique aspects no one had seen before in a cemetery. It was a design popular on the east coast and we may have been the westernmost example of this design.”
Powell’s new cemetery design solved a unique problem St. Joseph residents were complaining about in 1870. The first burial at Mount Mora was decades prior in 1843 when surveyor and landowner Simeon Kemper buried his father-in-law. In 1846, Kemper purchased a quarter-section of land and the following year he buried his very young daughter and son on what was now the land he owned. The 20 acres on the northwest corner became the cemetery in 1851. As the cemetery expanded, it remained in a rural area. By 1870, pigs were said to be roaming about on occasion and causing damage. When Powell finished his cemetery design, Mount Mora was a multi-use and progressive space (a combination of rural and modern) that made a significant impact on many other aspects of the early city.
A highlight of the cemetery’s architecture is Mausoleum Row, a collection of 21 mausoleums with distinct features and embellishments. Nine others are placed across the property. With the earliest built in 1886, the mausoleums are one part a “who’s who” of early St. Joseph success, spanning well-known families whose names are still present on street signs, buildings and philanthropic organizations today. They’re one part architectural marvel, with tremendous amounts of weight (such as granite) set against delicate designs – a reflection of the European influence that profoundly impacted St. Joseph’s collection of mansions and historic homes in the late 1800s. And they’re one part pure art, offering an especially unforgettable view at sunset.
Looking toward the end of Mausoleum Row, some say the crown jewel could be the pair of Egyptian sphinx that sit at the massive Townsend mausoleum. (Note: The Townsend Mausoleum belongs to Robert E. Townsend who was Vice President of Townsend and Wall. His brother, the dry goods company president, is buried up the hill. The impressive multi-story dry goods building still stands in downtown St. Joseph and has been converted to loft apartments).
The Work Continues
Thousands of hours of documentation, study and restoration work have been completed at Mount Mora, but Lehr estimates that more than half of the graves are awaiting research and identification. “There are so many more to learn about. It’s exciting to offer that information to people who continue to ask, and to learn what they’ve uncovered that adds to our knowledge,” she says.
That means there’s still a great deal of community to discover and many new connections, just waiting to be shared … from one of the nation’s most intriguing, beautiful and very much alive cemeteries.
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