Expedition Re-Discovers Ancient County Cemetery

Judy Kramer
County Reporter
Cemeteries are of historical importance, connecting our present day lives to that of the past. They are also places where families go to be comforted, and to honor and remember loved ones who are no longer with them. The 19th century Kays Plantation Cemetery, located near Turkey Creek in south Benton County, is capturing the attention and emotional attachment of a growing number of out-of-town and local descendants of those who are buried there. Although the cemetery is now surrounded by private property that is not owned by any family members, descendants have been able to access the site a few times by boat and by land covered by heavy undergrowth. So far, they have identified two tombstones and about 10 graves.
“So many of my family’s relatives live or lived south of the Osage River,” said Belinda Luke, descendant of those buried at Days Plantation Cemetery, and great, great granddaughter of Benton County Civil War Veteran, Christopher Columbus Shaeffer. “The residential area now called ‘Doc’s Retreat, once belonged to my great-great grandfather. I also had ancestors in Edwards. I live in Missouri, outside of Benton County, but organize yearly family reunions where we gather at Cousin Steve Klein’s farm in Lincoln. Steve Daleske got us into the Days Plantation Cemetery about seven or eight years ago so we could clean out the brush. We have not been lately, and hope to get prior approval to gain access again.”
Family member, Becky Shaeffer Dennis, is descended from William Patterson Kays and his wife Elizabeth Frances Langford Kays, who were born in the 1820s and are buried in Kays Plantation Cemetery. She said the most recent family reunion was held in Lincoln on July 24 – 28, and included 21 family members.
“The reunions started in 2006 when I wanted to find at least one relative in Benton County,” said Dennis. “This year we had family visiting from California, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Utah as well as Missouri. We would like to visit the Kays Plantation Cemetery during a reunion because the brush has grown up again since our last visit, and we would like to clean it. These graves as well as those of other family members around the county touch our hearts. We are grateful for the opportunity that we have had to see the graves of our ancestors and want our grandchildren to see them too. These people are very special to us and we feel they still live on. They are sacred. These great, great grandpeople – they haven’t been forgotten. We remember!”
Dennis talked about the time a family member wrote down her experiences when visiting the Kays Cemetery. She said that in the fall of 1988, Kays descendant, Wayne Pate of Warsaw, loaded his chain saw and took several descendants by Jeep to “Old Kay’s Cemetery.” They soon ran out of road, abandoned the Jeep and continued on foot. It was quite some time before they reached the burned ruins of the William Patterson Kays’ house, the first brick building built in Benton County. The group then crawled under a barbwire fence and climbed a hill before reaching the cemetery.  Stones were found for William Patterson Kays, b. 21 September 1826, d. 10 October 1887; Elizabeth Frances Langford Kays, b. 25 December 1827, d. 27 May 1913; Isaac Wilber Shaeffer, b. 3 February 1878, d. 26 April 1881; Daughter of William J. Kays and Sarah Adaline Grissam Kays, b. 16 December 1894, d. 4 June 1896; and at the foot of that plot were two small foot markers with E.R.K and L.A.K on them; James P., Son of W.J and S.A. Kays b. 23 May 1878, d. 12 June 1878. All of the graves were covered with Irises.
Dennis said that the bricks used for the Kays’ house had been kilned locally and there were still bricks all over the property. She took some home with her.
Luke and Dennis said that there are other cemeteries around Benton County with family ancestors and that one of them, the Turkey Creek Chapel Cemetery, was donated by a great, great grandparent. They said that other family cemeteries are also located on private property and that the owners have shown a great interest in the sites. One property owner even constructed a fence around an old cemetery to protect it. Dennis said that long ago, family cemeteries were often surrounded by cedar trees to identify and protect them.
Many old cemeteries have been identified in Benton County under overgrown weeds, allowing interested people to document them and allowing us to catch a glimpse of some of the interred person’s lives. Some of the graves discovered have included those of Civil War soldiers and veterans,  and there is a “Negro” burial ground that was active from the 1840s to 1944. It is rumored that Spanish graves dating to times before Missouri’s statehood, as well as a slave cemetery may exist in South Benton County, and some people who have helped clean up grave sites in the Cole Camp area speak of Indian mounds located off county roads in fields.
Although access to family graves that are on private property may make it inconvenient for family members, 2018 Missouri Statue 214.132 allows any person who wishes to visit an abandoned family cemetery or private burying ground which is completely surrounded by privately owned land, for which no public ingress or egress is available, shall have the right to reasonable ingress or egress for the purpose of visiting such cemetery. This right of access to such cemeteries extends only to visitation during reasonable hours and only for purposes usually associated with cemetery visits.