At Oak Hill with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation

IMG_1408I had the pleasure of walking through parts of the southern half of Oak Hill Cemetery with some of the donors of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation on Wednesday, September 24.  This group of people is representative of hundreds who have over the years contributed generously to a fund that has been used to support many community activities and resources in Grand Rapids.  In the course of the walk at Oak Hill, it was interesting to note just how extensive is the relationship between the GRCF and Oak Hill Cemetery.  Many of the great donors to this community fund lie at rest, often within just a few feet of each other, within both halves of Oak Hill.  Some of the names are well known to us, such as Bissell, Blodgett, Herpolsheimer and Sligh, though some, among our greatest benefactors, are less known today, like Wylie, Metz, Wilcox and Raniville.

Among those whose names have slipped from common knowledge, and who rest at Oak Hill, is that of Lee M. Hutchins, the founder of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.  Mr. Hutchins, born in Wisconsin in 1854, opened a drug store in Ionia at the age of 17, and later arrived in Grand Rapids in 1898 to become secretary/treasurer of the Hazeltine Perkins Drug Company, an early local manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, an association that continued for the rest of his life.

During all of his adult life, Hutchins was dedicated to the health and success of his adopted community, and in 1922, with a donation of $25.00, founded and created the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.  The new entity quickly attracted the attention and support of many others in the city, and as a result is today a major force in planned charitable giving in Western Michigan.

It was a pleasure to show some of the donors of the Foundation some of the fascinating history of our city, including the resting places of so many who have shared their resources to make it a better place to live over the last ninety-odd years.

Do I really need to keep saying what fascinating things can be found in our cemeteries?

A Cemetery Horror Story….With a Happy Ending

Here’s a story that will raise the hair, if not the hackles of any cemetery historian.

Last summer, while walking around the southern edge of historic Fulton Street Cemetery, I was astonished to find that an early marble grave marker that I had seen and photographed before, had been ruthlessly vandalized by some nut case apparently seeking a place for misdirected artistic expression.  For reasons that are utterly beyond understanding, the anonymous vandal had apparently removed the marker from the cemetery, painted it in colors and a manner of his own choosing, and then blithely replaced it for all to see and what…..admire??


The mode of the design chosen by the vandal betrays, among other things, his ignorance of the history of 19th century cemeteries like Fulton Street and the markers that inhabit them.  The pointing hand at the center of the marker, which was originally intended as a reflection of a belief and expectation of resurrection has, in the painterly hands of this vandal, been converted to a tawdry expression of “we’re number one”, a message that certainly resonates far more with a 21st century moron than it ever would have with the occupant of the grave the marker decorates.  This sort of stupid conduct reminds one of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa or putting a pair of pants on DaVinci’s Horse.

Okay, so here’s the happy ending.  When I saw the vandalized marker, I immediately brought it to the attention of the Director of City Cemeteries, Jim Arsulowicz.  Jim shared my unhappiness, and went immediately to Fulton Street, where he removed the stone, and brought it back to his office to try to restore it.  Sadly, because the stone was (originally) crafted of white marble, the paint used by the vandal proved to be quite indelible, and incapable of removal.  Not to be deterred in his effort, Jim tested and ultimately applied another coat of paint to the stone, forever covering the offending paint job, and returning the marker to a semblance of its original appearance.  The stone was returned to its original site, where hopefully it can safely and respectfully remain for at least another 150 years, without the artistic alterations of the lunatic fringe.

I have the hardest time understanding just what it is that would inspire someone to do something like this, but I can promise that if it happens again, within the sight lines of me or any of the many others who love and revere these historic sites, someone is going to receive a visit from the local constable.

It was a perfect weekend

In cooperation with the Grand Rapids Historical Society, we ran a huge cemetery walk at historic Fulton Street Cemetery this past weekend, September 6 & 7.  Over the course of two days, and four walks, more than 800 people were introduced to the history and art present in the oldest cemetery in the City of Grand Rapids.  Highlights included the history of the cemetery beginning in 1838, and stops at the markers of a number of important players in the early history of the city, including John Ball, Joel Guild, Abram Pike, William ‘Deacon’ Haldane and Charles Comstock.  We were able to look at a  variety of early markers that illustrate the cultural and artistic development of the late Victorian era, and really demonstrate the great changes that were occurring in the mid and late 19th century in the American view of the end of life.

My thanks to all who were able to attend, and especially to the Trustees of the Society who, as usual put forth tremendous effort to make the event a success for everyone.

A Walk Through Oak Hill

On Saturday, August 2, I had the pleasure of walking with a group of about fifty members of the West Michigan Genealogical Society through the southern half of Oak Hill Cemetery (Eastern & Hall).  This is a group of people who are highly interested in the histories of people who have been born, lived and died in Western Michigan (and elsewhere) over the past several centuries.  All of the Society members are experts at finding the records, newspaper accounts and documents that chronicle the lives of those who have come before, many of whom now rest in Oak Hill, and similar cemeteries.  It was a real privilege to meet with the WMGS members, and to show them part of Oak Hill.

The route we took through Oak Hill followed the path I have shown to many other groups over the years, but we took a closer look at a couple of burial sites that had particular interest to the genealogists.  One of these was the burial site of Lt. John J. Nardin (OHS I-06-06), located near the western edge of the cemetery, near the City Vault.  I wanted the genealogists to see it because it, and a number of other Nardin family markers in the immediate area, illustrate so well the real importance of walking carefully and reading closely markers of even the most seemingly unremarkable outward appearance.  Lt. Nardin’s marker is of granite, and of modest size and style, dating from the middle-late 19th century.  Unlike many other contemporary markers, this one and some of those nearby, note a foreign birthplace (Lt. Nardin was born in Paris).  But the real surprise from Lt. Nardin’s marker comes from a brief historical epitaph that is included.  The marker recites that Lt. Nardin “Served with Napoleon I, was in the march to Moscow”.  So it seems that Lt. Nardin, at the age of 20 (long before he came to Grand Rapids, or indeed, there was a Grand Rapids), was among the 450,000 French soldiers who followed Napoleon in his fateful and ultimately tragic invasion of Russia in 1812.  Unlike most of his compatriots, Nardin survived the experience, and in his later years, came to and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Amazing what you’ll find in a stroll through a cemetery, isn’t it?