Fifth Graders Unveil New Memorial at Historic Site in Arnolds Park
A few gravestones on the windy south shore of West Lake Okoboji remind visitors of a tragic chapter of Iowa history, when violence broke out between Native Americans and Euro-American settlers. By the end of the Spirit Lake Conflict, in 1857, a 13-year-old girl named Abbie Gardner had lost her entire family.
Today, we tend to think that the stories of that conflict, like those who died, have been laid to rest.
But when a school group visited the state-owned Abbie Gardner Sharp Cabin and gravesite in the spring of 2019, they were disappointed and concerned that some of the graves were unmarked, in an area defined only by a small fence. They told their teacher they wanted to place a memorial on the site and asked their teacher for help.
That teacher, Shayla Hunefeld, contacted me in May of 2019, and we began a year-long discussion about what should and could be done. Maybe it’s because I’m a dad, but I have to admit that I was touched. Here was a group of 5th grade students who wanted to make a difference in their community and who wanted to use one of our historic sites to do so. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to help and the more I wanted these students to see how their hard work could make a difference.
Together, Hunefeld and I laid out a plan the students carried out over the following year. They researched the site’s history to confirm the identities of those interred in the grave. They drafted the text and design of a memorial marker to be placed at the site, with approval from the State Historical Society of Iowa. They even raised money for the marker and hired a local vendor for its manufacture and installation.
On a beautiful fall day earlier this month, Hunefeld and her students unveiled the marker during a ceremony with about 100 people. I had a chance to meet the students, and let me tell you: They are incredible young people — warm, witty, enthusiastic and smart. I told them that I hoped they could see the value of their hard work and determination.
We chatted for a bit and, before parting, I told them that there was one other lesson to learn: Sometimes grownups get it wrong. In my opinion, there always should have been a memorial to those interred in the group grave. Placing a memorial at the site was the right thing to do, but it took a group of intelligent and dedicated 5th graders to make it happen.
Their example inspires me, and I will carry it with me throughout my career.
— Michael Plummer manages the eight state-owned historic sites for the State Historical Society of Iowa
Other student history projects
Trish Bergren’s “cemetery kids” — middle and high school students — are part of the Nodaway Valley Historical Museum’s “Adopt a Grave” project. As curator of the museum, Bergren helps students preserve gravestones and research the people who are buried underneath. The students also clean, dig up and replace stones as necessary, and weed and clean out flowers in graveyards across the county.
Local students developed a series of videos called “Opening Doors to Lisbon History” with help from the Lisbon Historic Preservation Commission. The videos chronicle the history of Lisbon and its Hills Bank, United Methodist Church, Cedar Rapids History Center and public library. The library was built in 1875 and is the oldest existing building in the Lisbon Main Street Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.
National History Day
Every year, thousands of Iowa students participate in the National History Day in Iowa program, a year-long academic program that encourages middle and high school students to conduct historical research and present their findings through research papers, websites, performances, exhibits and documentaries. Participants compete at regional, state and national levels for scholarships and prizes.