Clayton Ridge student surveys city cemetery

Through her volunteer project, Jessica Klein, daughter of Jim and Carol Klein, learned to recognize military graves, taught herself to use Excel to create spreadsheets, and perfected a method for reading difficult gravestones. (Photo submitted)

By Molly Moser

Clayton Ridge senior Jessica Klein plays clarinet and alto saxophone in the high school bands. She participates in speech. She sings in the mixed choir and the chamber choir, acts in plays, and student directs musicals. Lately, she’s also been spending a lot of time in area cemeteries.

Between July 2012 and October 2013, Klein logged 280 hours compiling and organizing burial records in Guttenberg City Cemetery. She copied the plat book by hand, one entry at a time, alphabetizing the 1500 entries inside. When that resource fell short of the roughly 2700 graves in the cemetery, she turned to the Iowa Graves WPA Survey. 

“There were no dates in the plat book. The WPA records are handwritten death records from the time of death, and there are a lot of misspellings and wrong dates. I don’t think there’s any way you can fix records from 200 years ago,” Klein explained. Even so, the errors are what inspired her project.

While researching her ancestors for a junior high genealogy project, Klein came across a website with an index of Clayton County gravesites. “There were lots of blank listings,” she remembers. Klein held on to the idea until high school, when she began collecting community service hours for silver cord recognition during her high school graduation ceremony.

“I knew I was going to go to a private college, and community service helps with scholarships,” said Klein, who serves as student body president. “I really wanted to do this project, so I went for it. The cemetery sexton at the time, Claude Wingfield, thought I was nuts – maps were messed up, records were incomplete – but it didn’t faze me.”

After exhausting the written resources, Klien told The Press, “I gave up and just said, ‘I’m going to walk the cemetery.’” She scoured the cemetery for six days, and added the data she collected to an ever-growing spreadsheet she used to organize her research. 

During a month-long hiatus from her main project at Guttenberg’s city cemetery, Klein volunteered her time doing similar work at both St. Paul’s Cemetery on Jolly Ridge Road (where she cataloged 95 graves) and at St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery in Garnavillo (surveying an estimated 800-900 graves). 

Current sexton Paul Kregel calls the high school senior one in a million. “Her work helped quite a bit with veterans’ graves,” he said. 

“I learned a lot about military markers,” said Klein. “I researched battalions to find out what they did, and I tried to get that information as up-to-date as possible. I feel that if you served, you should have that listed near your grave or online.”

When Klein completed her project last fall, she turned all of her spreadsheets over to the city. “She’s done a lot of legwork that will save us a lot of time,” said the sexton. “It’s a great start.”

Even with Klein’s 200+ hours of work, the cemetery record project has a long way to go. “Jessica did the groundwork for us. Now we have a base on which to move forward,” said Julie Zittergruen, assistant city manager. According to Zittergruen, the city hopes to find funding to hire a firm to map the cemetery and create a searchable database accessible online. The next phase of the project could take up to a year. 

By then, Klein will be attending classes at Luther College, where she intends to major in music in preparation for her future as a high school band director. She’ll never forget the day she completed this intense project. “It was October 30, 2012. I remember being so glad I was done,” she admitted. “I thought this was going to be an easy two-month thing, but it just kept spiraling.” Though it took much longer than she expected, Klein says she enjoyed herself. “I liked digging through the records and discovering the different families.”

Klein’s research can be accessed online at  


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