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History Can Be Discovered In Cemeteries In Washtenaw County

Jun 19, 2018

People have differing views on going to cemeteries.  Whether you find it peaceful or whether you find it creepy, you can find a sense of history.  With that in mind, 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan went exploring at a few cemeteries in Washtenaw County.

As you stand at the entrance of the Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor, you’re instantly drawn to a gothic revival gatehouse that was built in 1874.  That’s nearly two decades after the cemetery was founded in 1857.  It was designed by Colonel James Lewis Glen from Niles, Michigan.

I’m joined by Ann Arbor historian Grace Shackman.

"What’s interesting about this is that it’s very different than the ones that preceded it.  It looks more like a park, it has these roundings, and this was a new movement in cemeteries.  It started in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery, it's west of Boston, and the idea was that there would be a place to contemplate and think on life," said Shackman.

Walking through the rolling hills of the 65-acre cemetery, you can’t help but to reflect on life.  The lives of the more than 90,000 people who are buried here.  Among them are family members of John Allen, the co-founder of the City of Ann Arbor.

"John Allen himself wouldn’t be buried here because he died on the way home from the Gold Rush.  He was quite a daring adventurer.  The fact that he would come to this area, when it was an unknown area to start the city or town then," said Shackman.

Elisha Walker Rumsey, the other co-founder of the City of Ann Arbor is buried at the cemetery.  He died from a fever in 1827, just three years after founding Ann Arbor.  University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, who died in 2006, is also buried here.  Historian Grace Shackman points out another prominent figure.

"This is Joseph Beal Steere, he was important at the university in the early days.  He did a lot of traveling around the world finding examples of plants, things to bring back," said Shackman.

Most of the headstones are made out of sandstone or granite, some are shaped to fit the personality of the deceased, like a book or an angel.  In a way, they each have their own characteristics.

Jorge:  So these are very different.  We’re walking towards…is it the Height family? 

Grace: Yeah. 

Jorge:  And they almost have like a little window.  There are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ,and they’re about maybe two feet high and they have a small window.  What is that? 

Grace:  Well, people could use their imagination for anything they want and this is a very good idea.  I’ve seen similar ones that have a picture of the deceased.

As you can imagine, Forest Hill isn’t the only cemetery in Washtenaw County full of history.  The Highland Cemetery in Ypsilanti was founded in 1863 and also contains unique gravestones.  That’s where I met Barry LaRue.  He’s the secretary for the Highland Cemetery Association.

"You have a variety of different styles, you’ve got this sphere, you’ve got the draped urn, you’ve got these more naturalistic ones with tree trunks and mushrooms and things like that.  I think that sort of says, you’re going back to the Earth," said LaRue.

As the sun also shines over Highland Cemetery, grounds crews are busy mowing.  This 100-acre cemetery looks similar to Forest Hill Cemetery because it was also designed by Colonel James Lewis Glen.  LaRue says that Shelly Brown Hutchinson is buried here.  He was the co-founder of the former S&H Green Stamps.

"Back in the early part of the 20th Century, through most of the 20th Century, there were things called trading stamps, which were given out at grocery stores and other retail stores when you bought products.  And then you collected them in books and once you filled up a book or two or three you might be able to get a set of dishes or some silverware or a lawn mower or something.  And so Shelly Byron Hutchinson was the H of S&H Green Stamps, which was a very popular form of trading stamp.  And he made a small fortunate and built his large mansion on North River Street between East Forest and Oakwood Street," said LaRue.

Just take a few steps in any direction and you’ll most likely see a last name you recognize.  Some, like Cross, have even become street names in Ypsilanti in honor of early settlers.  But there is one name that stands out.

"This is the Starkweather Memorial Chapel and it's located just facing the main boulevard, just inside the gates and it’s in the Richardsonian Romanesque style," said LaRue.

Local philanthropist Mary Ann Starkweather had the granite and Lake Superior sandstone chapel built in 1889 in honor of her late husband John.  It looks like a small stone cottage with tall oakwood doors.  LaRue describes the chapel as we walk-in.

"So you see that you got this room that would allow you to have a coffin in the tower area.  We have pews that are in storage and we would put them back, we would refinish the floors.  We’re working with a plaster conservationist to restore the plaster," said LaRue.

The one room chapel is being renovated, but even with scaffolding and other construction equipment its beauty is not disturbed.  Tiffany glass windows glow in blues, greens and oranges.  There’s a 15-foot high arch that emphasizes the coffin area below.  An adjacent small wooden platform was used by a pastor during funerals.

Jorge:  Barry, it’s hard not to look up.  You walk in here and you look up.  Can you describe that kind of wood, that type of style?  What are we seeing here? 

Barry:  Well, right now you’re seeing the actual rafters, roof joists.  But you’re also seeing these large decorative beams and I guess you can call them king posts that are there for support and for decoration."

The chapel also has a wooden spiral staircase that leads to a viewing platform in a small tower.  It’s currently closed because it’s not in very good condition, but LaRue describes it.

"A roofed area with windows on four sides so you could sort of survey the grounds of the cemetery but it’s very narrow and I don’t think it was ever actively used by people to do that.  I think it was more of an architectural novelty on the building rather than an active observation platform or anything," said LaRue.

With over 16,000 graves, an original cold storage room located behind the chapel was a resource that was definitely used.  It’s about six feet by ten feet big and has inch and half steel pipes that served as shelves.

"Back in the 19th Century you had to hand dig a grave and in the winter the ground was frozen and you couldn’t bury people.  So they had to have a room chamber in order to stack the coffins to wait until the spring thaw and so the chapel provides that room," said LaRue. 

Both the Highland and Forest Hill cemeteries are open to the public for visits.  It’s a great way to research the people who have helped shaped Washtenaw County.  You can also look up information about your own relatives at the cemeteries.  Just ask for help at the main office.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu