Gardens of Stone

Author: Grace Shackman

Old graveyards unlock the secrets of forgotten communities.

Washtenaw County is dotted with small rural nineteenth-century graveyards, often of startling beauty. Their stone markers, sometimes in rows but often clustered around trees or bushes, record the passage from birth to death; the more elaborate stones are also decorated with symbolic images such as weeping willows or open Bibles.

Some cemeteries are well maintained by townships, churches, or private groups, and are easy to find. Others, abandoned and overgrown, are harder to locate but worth the effort. Broken gravestones, tilted or lying on the ground with bushes and grass growing around and over them, contrast with thriving remnants of flowers planted more than a century ago. The decrepitude gives even more credence to the “life is fleeting” message of cemeteries and adds to their eerie beauty.

But local cemeteries are more than places for admiration and contemplation. Just as individual graves contain the mortal remains of people who once lived, these cemeteries are the remains of dead communities--villages, churches, or clusters of farm families—that long ago were centers of local life.

In the nineteenth century, mill towns dotted the Huron and Raisin rivers. Most of them died out after steam power replaced waterpower. In 1874 the town of River Raisin, at Clinton and Braun roads in Bridgewater Township, had a post office, railroad station, sawmill, gristmill, and cider mill. All that remains today is the Bridgewater Town Hall Cemetery, bounded on the south by a cornfield and on the north by the 1882 township hall. The hall replaced one built in 1856, which the township board mandated be made available for “moral and scientific lectures, and for funerals.”

Like all the old cemeteries, the Bridgewater Town Hall Cemetery stands on high ground, and many of the graves are grouped around trees. A patch of irises is planted in the back. Nineteenth-century mourners put a lot of work into making gravesites pretty, since family members frequently visited. Families usually bought cemetery plots in a large group; the family name is often marked on a pillar or stele, surrounded by lower markers for individual graves.

At the Bridgewater Town Hall Cemetery, local veterans groups have marked the grave of Ebenezer Annabil, who died in 1842 at age eighty-six. Annabil served as a sergeant and seaman in the Revolutionary War. Veterans groups also mark Civil War vets’ graves, which are numerous in these nineteenth-century graveyards.

The settlement of Hudson Mills, on the Huron River north of Dexter, also had a cluster of mills--flour, saw, pulp, plaster, and cider--as well as a general store and a hotel big enough to host dances. Nothing remains of this town but a few remnants of the millrace and crumbling foundations on the west side of Hudson Mills Metropark, and the Hudson Cemetery on Dexter-Pinckney Road just south of North Territorial. The graves of David and Betsy Dudley are placed prominently in the front of the burial ground, facing the road. The Dudleys, farmers who came to Michigan from New York in 1829, sold the land to Dexter Township in 1841 for use as a cemetery.

Hudson Mills and other early cemeteries are filled with sandstone markers, which were inexpensive and easy to engrave. The full dates of birth and death are usually inscribed, along with the age at death. If there is a symbolic picture on top, it is often balanced with a Bible verse on the bottom, such as “She has done what she could—Mark 14:8” or “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead—2 Maccabees 12:45.” On most old stones these quotations, small and often in script, are almost impossible to read, because the material eroded so easily.

In the early nineteenth century granite had to be imported from Scotland and was too expensive for general use. By the 1880s, however, it was being quarried in Vermont, and ordinary families could afford it. People wanted granite headstones for their durability, but they were harder to engrave, especially with the tools then available, so the inscriptions usually were limited to the name and the years of birth and death. If there are no granite markers in a cemetery, it probably was not used after the 1870s.

Hudson has the usual array of nineteenth-century decorations on its sandstone markers. The weeping willow is the most common motif, followed by various religious themes--Bibles, fingers pointing to heaven, hands clasped in prayer. None of these small country graveyards, however, features the kind of grand sculptural markers--such as angels, lambs (for children who died), or tree stumps (for people cut down in midlife)--that are sometimes found in larger nineteenth-century cemeteries. Perhaps the people in these rural areas couldn’t afford the larger carvings or thought them too ostentatious.

At the back of Hudson Cemetery is the grave of Benjamin Chamberlain, a local farmer and son of David Chamberlain, a millwright and mill owner. Although the Chamberlain family is still in the area, Benjamin is the only one buried there. Welton Chamberlain, his grandson, explains, “My grandmother bought ten grave lots at Forest Lawn in Dexter when it was the moxie thing to do--be buried in a well-kept cemetery. She died in 1909. She always planned to move her husband there but didn’t.”

Chamberlain’s grandmother’s concern about the upkeep of the Hudson cemetery was well founded. “The Howards, who lived on the corner, used to mow and go in and trim,” Chamberlain explains. “They had family there.” The Chamberlains also kept up the place, but after World War II other families died out or moved away, and the cemetery fell into disrepair. About four years ago, at the prompting of the Pinckney Historical Society, the township began mowing the site again, and the county historical society also helps keep it trimmed.

Unfortunately, the cemetery at Scio Village gets no such attention, even though the village, between Ann Arbor and Dexter on the Huron River at Zeeb Road, was much bigger than Hudson or River Raisin. Laid out in 1835 by Samuel Foster, at its peak it had mills, a post office, grocery and hardware stores, a copper shop, a blacksmith, a saloon, a brewery, and a wagon repair shop. It was also a stop on the Michigan Central Railroad. Foster’s brother, Ted, coedited the Signal of Liberty, an abolitionist newspaper published in Ann Arbor, and ran a station of the Underground Railroad in Scio Village, helping escaped slaves reach Canada. But after Scio’s main mill burned in 1896, the community died out, with the post office closing in 1901.

Scio’s cemetery is on Huron River Drive at the western edge of the area where the town once stood. When members of the Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County first surveyed it in 1971, the graveyard was still easy to locate from the road, and they found thirty-one stones, although there were probably more than that originally.

Today the cemetery is so overgrown that it took me three tries to find it. Finally, following a small, unpromising path, I came to a circle of daylilies, a plant often used at cemeteries because of its easy maintenance and longevity. Continuing on the path, I finally found one stele lying on its side and a stone pedestal that must have been the foundation of another tombstone.

If an early community included a church, its cemetery stood a much better chance of being preserved. Rogers Corner, at Fletcher and Waters roads, and Rowes Corner, at M-52 and Pleasant Lake Road, today consist of nothing more than a few farmhouses. Yet graves are still well maintained in the church cemeteries there. That’s because the settlements’ respective churches--Zion Lutheran in Rogers Corner and Sharon United Methodist in Rowes Corner--both have active congregations today.

Of course, not all nineteenth-century churches in the area made it to the next century--much less this one. Roman Catholics in Manchester, Dexter, and Chelsea all trace their places of worship to country churches that no longer exist, although the cemeteries attached to these churches are still there.

In 1839 Germans in Freedom Township founded St. Francis, the first Catholic congregation in western Washtenaw County. They built a log church at Schneider and Hieber roads, and Catholics from the area, including Manchester, came to services in buggies. In 1858 the congregation built a brick church about a mile south on Bethel Church Road near Koebbe; it was used until 1911, when the congregation merged with St. Mary’s in Manchester.

The cemetery for the first St. Francis is overgrown and unused, with scattered tombstones, many fallen on the ground. Crosses are the only decorations on these stones. The site is reverting to forest, but the ground cover of myrtle, another common cemetery plant, still thrives.

The second St. Francis Cemetery, maintained and sometimes used by St. Mary’s, is in better shape. A wrought iron fence, with grapevines climbing it (see cover photo), surrounds the site. Inside are plantings of hosta, rose of Sharon, and lilac. The German ancestry of the founders is obvious from the names on the mostly granite tombstones, such as Dettling, Friedel, Schneider, and Fritz. The church was razed in 1933, but the Italianate rectory next to the cemetery is still there, now a private home.

Dexter’s Catholic church, St. Joseph, originally stood at Quigley and Dexter Townhall roads, five miles northwest of the village. The first burial at its churchyard was in 1839, a year before the church itself was built. The tombstones bear mainly Irish names, such as Haggerty, McEntee, Reilly, and O’Connor. James Gallagher’s stone says he was born in Sligo, Ireland.

When the original church burned down in 1856, the congregation moved its services to Dexter and after 1870 stopped using the old cemetery. A marker at the site explains: “Time, neglect, and vandalism took its toll until 1980, when parishioners reclaimed and restored this sacred place. Unable to locate the original gravesites, the monuments were gathered into the present arrangement to preserve them and honor the memory of our ancestors.” The stones were laid flat and embedded into two cross-shaped concrete slabs, one at each end of the cemetery, with groups of steles planted in the middle of each.

Another former churchyard survives as a municipal graveyard. Two miles west of Sharon United Methodist Church, another Methodist church once stood at the corner of Pleasant Lake and Sylvan roads. After a tornado destroyed its building in 1917, the congregation decided to join the Methodist congregation in Manchester. The Sharon Township Hall across the street was also destroyed, so the township bought the church property, including its cemetery, and built a new hall there.

Both the township hall and the cemetery are still in use. Near the cemetery entrance is a Civil War monument honoring Abraham Lincoln and twenty-four Washtenaw County men who died in that war.

Many farmers saw no need to use anyone else’s cemetery, preferring to bury family members on plots at the backs of their farms. Sometimes neighbors used the space, too. One example is the Popkins Cemetery in Scio Township, on the old Popkins farm on Pratt Road near Honey Creek. One of the earliest cemeteries in the township, it is now almost entirely overgrown.

The Phelps family had a plot at the corner of Baker and Marshall roads south of Dexter. Alexander and Margaret Phelps came from Connecticut in 1831 with their two grown sons, Norman and Amos, and all bought farms near each other. The cemetery in the back of Norman’s farm was the burial spot not just for the family but for other early Dexter residents as well. Dexter historian Norma McAllister recalls, “Dexter people used to be buried there. Then people with families there were told to move them to Forest Lawn, that it was no longer going to be kept up.” Most of the site is filled with trees and forest undergrowth, but a few graves remain in derelict condition, along with some myrtle and lilies of the valley.

The Scadin family of Webster Township had better luck with its cemetery at Webster Church and Farrell roads. It stayed in the family until 1967, when the last Scadin, named Will, died and left the farm to Webster United Church of Christ. Today the church maintains the Scadin Cemetery on the northeast corner of the intersection, along with its own cemetery on the southeast corner.

“Cemeteries are a peaceful place to visit,” says McAllister. Anyone who has spent time poking around old graveyards will agree with that. One warning: if you go cemetery prowling, wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect yourself from poison ivy and burrs. A very useful guide is the Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County’s Directory of Cemeteries of Washtenaw County, Michigan, a booklet listing more than 100 cemeteries, complete with maps. It’s available through the society’s website, www.hvcn.org/info/gswc/.