MUSKEGO — A Civil War group that preserves the graves of Civil War soldiers is suing the city of Muskego for not mowing grass or trimming weeds at a cemetery where two Union Army soldiers are buried.
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War filed suit in Waukesha County Circuit Court Monday, saying that Muskego’s refusal to mow Luther Parker Cemetery violates state law requiring proper cemetery maintenance. The lawsuit is aimed at compelling cemetery maintenance, as other municipal cemeteries receive.
“The weeds and grass in Muskego’s cemetery are taller than some of the tombstones,” Bob Koenecke, head of the Sons of Union Veterans chapter in Wind Lake, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “This is a cemetery – it shouldn’t look like an abandoned city lot.”
Muskego conservation coordinator Tom Zagar said the city has not mowed the grass at the cemetery since taking it over in the mid-1960s. The land is considered a natural area and remnant prairie, he said. The city maintains that having the same vegetation that existed when the people were buried is proper, Zagar said.
The Wind Lake chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans that brought the lawsuit claim that the prairie remnant isn't the same. It has been contaminated with invasive species, naming honeysuckle and blackthorn, the group contends in its lawsuit.
"That's flat out wrong," said Tom Zagar, city conservation coordinator. Some buckthorn and honeysuckle had escaped the burns in a small part of the cemetery because they were in a shady area, he said. "It's gone now."
"Saying the whole place is overrun with it is just wrong," Zagar said.
Further camp 15 from Wind Lake claims in its lawsuit that the burns the city does to temporarily get rid of the weeds hurts the headstones, leaving scorch marks and carbon. Further, the city does nothing to keep the headstones in repair, or even upright, the lawsuit charges.
Claims that the headstones are darkened because they were scorched or received carbon deposits is not accurate, either, Zagar said. The Civil War veterans' graves are in shady areas not reached by the fires, he said.
"The stones look clean" but darkened by mold that lives on stones, he said.
Wind Lake camp 15 has volunteered to cut the grass and plants from around the graves, but Muskego wants to keep the cemetery natural.
That isn't just for aesthetics or to save money, Zagar said. The cemetery is a fragment of the prairie that developed throughout the Midwest over hundreds of years, he said. Seeds can be taken from it and planted elsewhere to recreate a prairie, the way the Richard Bong State Recreation Area is a reproduction, he said. But Muskego's cemetery is different.
"It's the real deal. Why lose that?," Zagar said. It's extremely rare for a fragment of prairie to have foot after foot of rich soil laid down by prairie plants for hundreds of years, he said. Some prairie plants' rooms go 15 feet down, he said.
Even so, Wisconsin law requires “proper and decent care” for the graves of all veterans, Koenecke said.
“There is nothing proper and decent about the weeds growing over the graves in Luther Parker Cemetery,” he said. “We’d just like Muskego to mow around the graves and show respect for the dead.”
Keeping that bit of old Muskego is a tribute to those same ancestors, not a disgrace," Zagar countered.
There are close to 70 graves in the cemetery at Ryan and North Cape roads, the veterans group estimates. Many of them are of the earliest settlers in Muskego, and all are covered with tall grass, weeds and brush, Koenecke said.
The Sons of Union Veterans chapter in Wind Lake retained Milwaukee attorney Franklyn Gimbel to file the suit after negotiations between the veterans group and the city, begun last fall, broke down.
The city had offered to keep a path clear to the Civil War graves and to trim at the graves, Zagar said. The Civil War group also would be allowed to erect a sign at the cemetery, he said. But that offer was turned down, he said.
Besides asking that the cemetery be maintained as other municipal cemeteries are, the lawsuit asks that Muskego stop burn-offs. The lawsuit sited numerous times when local Boy Scouts cleaned up the cemetery and fixed the headstones over the decades.
Who they were
The two Union soldiers buried in the cemetery are Homer Clark, a lieutenant in the 16th U.S. Infantry who died of wounds suffered at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, and Jonathan Smiley, a private in the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry who also died during the Civil War.
“Those two soldiers died to help preserve the Union 150 years ago, died to help make America the free country it is today,” Koenecke said. “They’ve been dead a hundred years or more. Their children and even their grandchildren have passed on. They have no one to speak for them. That’s why the Sons of Union Veterans feels obligated to fight on their behalf.”
Jeff Graf, of the veterans group, said in the news release: “Both Lt. Clark and Private Smiley died honorably serving their country and they deserve to have their graves treated as hallowed ground.”
The organization maintains that the city can mow around the graves and still preserve wild flowers on the borders and at the back end of the cemetery. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War is a 134-year-old organization made up of the descendants of the Union Army soldiers who served in the Civil War and is dedicated to preserving the graves, monuments and memory of those soldiers.