Rochester Cemetary, a Savannah Remnant

From The Sierra Club Guide to Natural Areas in and around Iowa City

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Rochester Township set aside a beautiful tract of virgin prairie savannah for use as a township Cemetary not long after Iowa became a state, and through the years, although this tract has been used as a cemetary, it remains as one of Iowa's best preserved tracts of native vegetation.


To reach Rochester Cemetary, drive east out of Iowa City on Rochester Street and follow the Herbert Hoover Highway about 20 miles, through West Branch until the road crosses the Cedar River just south of the village of Rochester. Cemetary Road is the first road to the south on the east bank of the river, and after passing a sawmill and a few houses, the road enters the cemetary.

What to Look For

Rochester Cemetary is a remnant of Iowa's tallgrass prairie savannah. This ecosystem is characterized by scattered spreading bur oaks, prairie grasses, and a mixture of woodland and prairie wildflowers.

When to Visit

The wildflower show in Rochester Cemetary begins in the spring with woodland wildflowers, some of which begin blooming in April and May. A blaze of shooting stars erupts later, typically peaking during the weeks before Memorial Day. Common daisies (a european import, but a pretty one) and prairie phlox dominate typical Memorial day, as the season develops, other wildflowers bloom, including pale purple coneflower, bergamot, and finally, as the growing season comes to an end, asters.

In the winter, the dried weed stems can be interesting, and whenever you visit, take the time to read the old tombstones. Many of these date back to the 1850's, and many tell a story of hard life on the prairie frontier, with high infant mortality and many women who died in their 20's, probably in childbirth.

Threats to Rochester Cemetary

Rochester Cemetary has been preserved as a natural area more through neglect than through deliberate planning to preserve a valuable natural area. While this area was settled early in Iowa's history, it was never prosperous enough to support the intensive style of cemetary maintenance that characterizes typical American cemetaries. Instead, mowing has been haphazard, perhaps once or twice a year, with some individual families mowing their gravesites more frequently. Fortuitously, this pattern of irregular mowing has been been close enough to the normal grazing patterns of a healthy prairie savannah to prevent the area from turning into a forest while allowing the native grasses and wildflowers to reproduce and occasionally to thrive.

Today, there is an unsteady but, we hope, workable arrangement between the Cedar County Conservation Board and the Rochester Township Board of Trustees that allows groups of volunteers working with the Conservation Board some say in prairie management in exchange for some help in maintaining the cemetary.

It is, however, very difficult to tell the families of people who have been buried in the cemetary how they should maintain their gravesites. To some, the native wildflowers of this area are the best possible memorial to the dead, while to others, they are only rank weeds and it is disrespectful to imagine anything less than a perfectly mowed green lawn around a grave. At some times of year, the flowers manage to argue their case quite forcefully, without any human help, but at other times, when the blooms are all gone and all that is left is a rank jumble of dead stems, the case for preserving the prairie is much harder to make to those who want to mow.

Visitors to Rochester Cemetary pose additional problems. Many of the older gravestones are fragile, being made of many small pieces that must have been designed for easy shipping before the era of from good roads and railroads. Other stones are deeply eroded limestone. Visitors should be extremely careful around these old stones; many are nearly invisible in the thick vegetation, and one careless step could easily break some of them.

Similarly, the prairie savannah vegetation here represents a rare remnant of an ecosystem that has been all but destroyed. Please avoid trampling it. Stay on the cemetary roads and paths, and do not use any of the hillside trails that show any sign of erosion.

Finally, do not pick the flowers, and do not harvest seed. Theft of prairie seed from this remnant has been a significant problem in the past. Harvesting all of the seed of any one species in a prairie remnant, as was done without permission a few years back, is not very different from clearcutting a forest.


Questions about Rochester Cemetary as a prairie remnant should be addressed to the Cedar Counter Conservation Board in Tiption Iowa.