May. 29th, 2017

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After supper, we stopped in at Darwin's office so I could have a look at the renovations and restructuring, which was very interesting.  Then we headed down to Higlhland Cemetery for the lantern tour.

Highland Cemetery is an enormous cemetery that opened in 1864.  Prospect Cemetery and the Summit Street Cemetery were too small, so the city bought a huge tract of land and had it landscaped for burial.  Rather than a military setup with straight lines, the architect chose to lay out the graves in swoops and spirals and flowers and stars, preserving also the hills and valleys and trees.

I love cemeteries, and my work in progress is set against this particular cemetery as a backdrop, so I wanted to attend this tour.  Darwin loves cemeteries, too, so off we went.

I posted photos at my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/steven.piziks/posts/10155286371292170?pnref=story

The weather was perfect--mid-sixties, fading sun, no bugs.  You couldn't ask for better!

At the main entry gates--wrought iron set against stone walls--we found a gray-haired man in chunky glasses who introduced himself as James Mann, a local historian who had written a number of books on Ypsilanti history.  I own a few of them, in fact.  After hearing him speak and watching him walk, I came to the conclusion that he's on the autism spectrum, though probably undiagnosed.

Anyway, about a dozen other people showed up, about half of them under 30, which was a nice surprise.  In my experience, it's the older folk who are most interested in this kind of thing.

James gave some introductory information about the cemetery, most of which I already knew, then lead us to the Starkweather Chapel, which is a mausoleum set up by Mary Ann Starkweather, a much beloved local philanthropist from the late 1800s.  In front of it sat dozens of oil lanterns, all lit and ready to go.  We each selected one and headed into the cemetery.

It was an interesting tour.  James showed us Civil War graves (including one of a soldier who was a member of the "Colored Division" and who, judging by the year of his death, died in action), graves with odd symbolism (a hand pointing up meant "gone to heaven" and a hand pointing down meant . . . well no one these days knows for sure. Probably not "gone to hell," but possibly "zapped by god and taken early."), the grave of Richard Streicher (a seven-year-old boy who was stabbed 14 times in 1935 and whose murder was never solved, and who only got a grave stone last year--Google it), the Potter's Field (a long, rolling hill with no markers on it), and more.

I asked James about how many burials they got, and he said about one a week, which is about fifty a year.  There are about 13,000 people buried in the cemetery, and they have enough room to keep them going for about 40 more years.

The most interesting part to Darwin and me was the "old" section.  Highland Park Cemetery was founded in 1864 because Prospect Cemetery, Ypsi's original cemetery, was too small.  Finally, Prospect Cemetery was abandoned, and by 1888 was overgrown and run down.  Ypsilanti grew out and around Prospect, and no one wanted this old, run-down cemetery among Ypsi's lovely new houses, so it was decided the cemetery needed to be moved. But how? Cities don't move cemeteries. It's too expensive.  Whenever a cemetery closes or is "vacated" (the official term for "moved"), the descendants are responsible for moving the graves.  Many graves were lost or forgotten--records were incomplete--and family members were unwilling or unable to pay to have coffins relocated.

Then the Ladies Club stepped forward. They could raise money to move the cemetery as a civic project.  Yay!  They worked on this for some time in the late 1880s and managed to lay the groundwork, so to speak.

But disaster struck: marriage.  One by one, the ladies got married.  The stresses of setting up a new household, being a new housewife, and even becoming pregnant meant the ladies suddenly had no time for civic projects.  The cemetery move was dropped.

In 1891, another civic group came forward--I forget which--and offered to move the cemetery.  Yay!  But they only hired ONE MAN. To move about 250 graves.  He did it, and he did it in only a couple months.

Yeah.

Let's look at that.  It takes one man with a shovel about five hours to dig a grave.  So relocating a grave takes ten hours of digging--five hours on the old, five on the new--plus time to haul the remains up, move the stone, haul everything to the new site, drop everything into the new grave, and reset the gravestone.  You could probably do two graves every three days.  Assuming a six-day work week, we're talking months and months and months for one man to move an entire graveyard.  And work would have to stop in winter.  And when it rained.  And if he got sick or hurt.  And when . . . and when . . .

Can you see where this is going?

Darwin and I had already visited the spot where the graves from Prospect had been relocated.  We found a whole bunch of grave markers, the old fashioned tall, thin, white kind.  Most lay in a too-neat rows on the grass and look liked they had been dropped there by someone who had tossed them off the back of a cart.  (No attempt was made to set the stones upright.  It was a very slapdash job.)  Many of the stones are mere inches apart.  There's simply no room for a grave underneath them.  Two groups of stones are jumbled together in a mess with some touching.  No room for graves there, either.

It's clear what happened.  The project got interrupted.  Pressure was on to get the cemetery out of there.  The new group hired the guy and told him to dig around and make it look like he'd done the digging, and just move the stones out to the new graveyard.  Who was going to check?  Who was going to care?  The last time anyone had been buried at Prospect was 20-odd years ago.  No one visited the graveyard anymore.  And that's what the worker did.  He hauled the surviving markers over to Highland Cemetery, dropped them on the ground in rows, and went home.  The end.

The Ladies Club got involved again at this point.  They turned Prospect Cemetery into Prospect Park, and it's still a park to this day.  It's very popular with families, and the school across the street uses it as a playground every day.  They don't know they're picnicking and playing atop over 200 dead bodies.

James, our guide, accidentally confirmed my theory.  I asked him about the gravestones being so close together and how actual graves could be down there.  He said a while ago, someone pushed metal probes down into several graves and they found nothing.  No coffins, no bones, nothing.

Ha!

We also visited the Trysting Tree.  This is a HUGE beech tree about 100 yards from the entrance of Highland Park Cemetery.  Carvings of people's names and initials cover it.  Some are way up high.  Graves are scattered beneath it.  It's supposedly the biggest tree in Washtenaw County, and this one is called the Trysting Tree.  For over 150 years--ever since the cemetery opened--it's been a place where young people come to canoodle among the dead.  They still do.  The tradition is that you carve your name or initials into the tree afterward.  There are lots of initials.  Some have commentary.  You have to see it.

I also learned that the Catholic cemetery across the street from Highland was transplanted.  It used to be closer to the heart of Ypsilanti on Ann Street, but the new Normal School wanted to expand (it eventually became Eastern Michigan University).  So the cemetery was relocated.  I don't know if it truly was or not.  More research is required to find out.

As the sun faded, our lanterns became bobbing points of yellow light.  We raised and lowered them to read grave markers and it felt like we had wandered back in time.  James said there are no ghost legends about Highland Cemetery, and no one felt spooked or spooky, just interested in the history.

By the end of the tour, Darwin and I were pleasantly tired and hungry.  We thanked our tour guide and popped over to Aubree's restaurant for a snack.  (We had visited the grave of Aubree's founder and learned that in the 80s and 90s, a motorcycle gang basically took over the restaurant as their main hangout.  I remember this.  Rows of motorcycles were always parked outside the restaurant, and they roared through Depot Town, and everyone hated them.)  The founder, Mr. French, finally got rid of them by gentrifying the place.  He changed the menu, raised the prices, replaced regular beer with imported beer, hired a bunch of young college girls to be waitresses, and gently told his motorcycle patrons that they couldn't swear around such Sweet Young Thangs.  After a couple weeks, the gang left.

It was a fine way to end the evening.


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