Beyond the Cemetery comes to Johnson County

BY DORA GROTE | OCTOBER 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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A brisk breeze and setting Sun shaped the mood as tour guides escorted guests around the Welsh United Church Of Christ Cemetery on Sunday, stopping at various grave sites to hear a the deceased's history.

Live actors portrayed the deceased Welsh immigrants for several groups of roughly 10 during the Beyond the Grave Cemetery Tour. The actors told stories of their character's life.

"It is a really interesting event in that you learn a lot of history of the people of Johnson County and the church," said Emily Jepson, a UI sophomore who volunteered at the event for her Intro to Museum Studies class. "It's also near Halloween, it's the cemetery, it's dark, and dead people are talking."


The Welsh United Church was built in 1846 — a year before the University of Iowa was organized — and its cemetery is home to many Welsh immigrants who originated from Wales, moved to Pennsylvania, and eventually ended up in Johnson County, said Meagan McCollum, the Johnson County Historical Society education coordinator.

This was the fifth year the Historical Society has hosted the event.

McCollum said many of the immigrants were drawn to the area — called Old Man' s Creek — primarily for farming opportunities. The land was good and cheap, which gave the immigrants an opportunity to establish themselves. The word of success traveled back to Pennsylvania and Wales, and other immigrants joined the first few.

The actors who brought the immigrants to life played an array of characters, from law enforcers to townspeople.

McCollum said the actors researched and wrote scripts about their characters.

Volunteer Michael Sindelar portrayed a sheriff's life.

The Barnes & Noble manager played Evan Rowland, who was born to Welsh parents in 1854.  

"He had a few interesting tales of chasing criminals," Sindelar said, clutching his sheriff's hat. "One with fraternity boys running booze to North Liberty."

Sindelar said the event stresses the importance of knowing the area's heritage.

"Even back then, it was a rowdy university town," Sindelar said and smiled.

Jepson portrayed immigrant Phebe Williams, a kind woman known throughout her community.

Williams lived in Johnson County and belonged to the Welsh Church. Jepson said Williams was married twice and widowed twice.

"It was interesting that her second husband wanted to leave the church because the congregation spoke Welsh, even though they were Welsh," Jepson said.

McCollum said the event is interesting because it gives people background of Johnson County.

"It is interesting because we are looking at history at a local level and hearing and experiencing the personal side of what happened," she said.

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