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A Brief History of Oak Hill Cemetery

by Martin L. Ashley

 

The history of Battle Creek is the story of its people, from the early settlers who entered the wilderness back in 1831 to the many who followed, molding and shaping our city into what it is today. Serving as a resting place for the multitudes who have had a hand in Battle Creek’s past is historic Oak Hill Cemetery.

 

The First Burial Ground

In 1836 Sands McCamly, Jonathan Hart and members of the Merritt family surveyed, platted and drew the first map of what was to become Battle Creek. At this time a small plot of land was set apart to be used as a burial ground. This first cemetery was located near the intersection of N. Washington and W. Van Buren streets, close to the location of the Towers Addition to the Battle Creek Sanitarium (Federal Center).

 

Over the years the village grew to such an extent that this original cemetery was being crowded out by the development of factories, businesses and homes. In 1843 Moses Hall, Almon Whitcomb, T. W. Hall, Edward Packer and others consulted and decided to purchase ten acres of land south of the city, paying $12 an acre.

 

Oak Hill Cemetery Organized

On March 25, 1844, Oak Hill Cemetery was officially organized under the state Act of 1840. The original by-laws included the following stipulations:

 

There shall be charged for digging graves and superintending interment, between April 1 and November 1, the sum of $1.50 for a child under ten years of age and $2.50 for a person older. From November 1 to April 1, fifty cents additional will be charged. … The price of burial right, digging the grave and filling same, in Potter’s field, shall be $2.00. ….The remains of any person who died of a contagious disease will not be admitted to the public vault.

 

The first burial at Oak Hill occurred on May 21, 1844, when Esther Cox, wife of Dr. Edward Cox, was interred.

 

The Cemetery was incorporated eleven years later with Gideon F. Smith as President and Ogden Green as Sexton. As Battle Creek continued to grow in the 1850s and 1860s, so did Oak Hill Cemetery. A tract of five acres was added to the west side and in 1867 nine additional acres enhanced the use of the cemetery. Burial lots were selling for $20 at this time.

 

The year 1873 marked a turning point for Oak Hill as the corporation was finally free of debt with a surplus of $300. A. C. Hamblin was elected President of the Cemetery Board and S. G. Wells was the Sexton.

 

Civil War Monument

Largely through the efforts of William H. Mason, a Civil War veteran, Oak Hill received a cannon from the battleship Cumberland, which was sunk in 1862 during the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac. The cannon, which graced a prominent hill visible from the South Avenue entrance, was dedicated by the Farragut Post No. 32 of the Michigan G. A. R., in commemoration of the heroic efforts of our Union soldiers and sailors during the Civil War.

 

In later years the cannon was donated to the war effort during the 1940s when scrap metal was needed. Ironically, when the cannon was removed from the cemetery grounds, the 65-ton steam operated crane being used to lift it onto a railroad truck overturned. As a result, both the cannon and the crane ended up being donated to the scrap drive.

 

The plaque salvaged from the cannon is now on display in the cemetery office.

 

Growth of the Cemetery

Work was started on enclosing a portion of the cemetery around 1890 with the erection of the familiar cobblestone fence and gate entrances. As this time the price of lots ranged from $30 to $100.

 

When the old Quaker Cemetery (later Fremont Park, now Quaker Park) was abandoned in 1899, the city authorized removal of all remaining burials, transferring them to Oak Hill.

 

War Veterans

In Oak Hill Cemetery there are two lonely graves, officially recognized in the cemetery books as rights 11 and 12, lot number 297 (rights here meaning burial rights or graves). This lot is located in the old part of the cemetery near the South Avenue entrance. The graves contain two unknown soldiers of the Civil War who were passing through Battle Creek on a train carrying wounded soldiers. When these two veterans died en route, leaving no means of identification, their remains were removed from the train and buried at Oak Hill.

 

There are at least 480 identified Civil War veterans buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, including two Medal of Honor recipients (Charles M. Holton and Edwin VanWinkle) ) and one Confederate veteran (Dr. James H. Reed).

 

Soldiers who have fought for the United States in other wars are also buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. There are two veterans of the Revolutionary War, Isaac Hickman and Moses Hall, Sr. Hall was originally buried in the old cemetery at North Washington and Champion streets. His remains were reinterred at Oak Hill in 1844, when the new cemetery was opened.

 

Veterans of the War of 1812 buried at Oak Hill include William K. Adams, Samuel Swift, Elihu Frisbie, Moses Hall, Jr., Fayette Cross and James Scott (who may also have served in the Mexican War).

 

William Hughes is a known Mexican War veteran and Elisha Andrus is also probably a veteran of that conflict. William Palmer, a veteran of the British Army, who guarded Napoleon at St. Helena, is also buried here.

 

The Mausoleum

In 1911 Oak Hill Cemetery was approached by William H. Hamilton, who desired to construct a public mausoleum on the cemetery grounds. For the consideration of $3,000 the Cemetery Board granted permission for the erection of a 338 crypt mausoleum, to be known as Oak Hill Abbey. As this was a private venture, Hamilton provided $6,000 for an endowment.

 

The design of the Abbey incorporated a rectangular structure ornamented by square towers on each corner and included two interior corridors with crypts arranged along each side.

 

During the course of construction a crypt was set aside as a time capsule where many local businesses, churches and clubs placed their brief histories for posterity. The original intention was for the crypt to be opened in the year 2911, one thousand years later. Unfortunately in 1960 vandals entered the Abbey and pried the cover from the crypt.

 

As years went by structural problems developed in a number of places in the Abbey. These eventually led to the abandonment (1955) and later demolition of Oak Hill Abbey in 1979. A maintenance building was built on the site of the mausoleum in 1981. A plaque listing all the burials in the original Abbey stands nearby.

 

War Memorials

On Armistice Day 1920 the American Legion dedicated a bronze plaque to the soldiers who gave their lives during World War I. The general public donated money to purchase this plaque, which was placed on a twelve-ton boulder near the South Avenue entrance.

 

In 1923 the American Legion Hospital requested that a special memorial area be set aside for the burial of World War I veterans who had no relatives and/or limited funds for burial. The Veteran’s Circle was officially dedicated on Memorial Day 1924 and now includes the graves of nearly 200 veterans of both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. The last burial in the Veteran’s Circle was in 1980.

 

Uniform headstones were provided for all the burials and an American flag flies continuously at the center of the American Legion Veteran’s Circle.

 

The Chapel

The idea of constructing a chapel at the cemetery was discussed at great length by the Board of Trustees during the early 1920s. In 1924 they employed local architect, Lewis J. Sarvis, to design a quaint building of English Gothic style.

 

The exterior walls incorporated seam-faced granite with limestone trim. An inscription, “Comfort Ye, My People,” from Handel’s Messiah, is carved into the stone above the entrance. The interior featured walnut pews seating 150 people and a recessed organ under Gothic arches.

 

Francois Grenier of the Beaux Arts Studio of Detroit was employed to create the exquisite stained glass memorial windows in the Chapel.

 

Opened in 1927, the Chapel fell into gradual disuse by the late 1940s. Due to the lack of heat, moisture took its toll. The organ fell apart and the pews were later sold. In the mid-1980s the Cemetery Board started a renovation project and the restored Chapel was rededicated in September 1990.

 

Additional construction

The long-recognized need for an office on the grounds of the cemetery was realized in 1941. Lewis J. Sarvis drew the plans for the office building, which was constructed at the South Avenue entrance. In design and material the office harmonizes well with the Chapel.

 

Cremation services were added in 1978 when the Board of Trustees voted to build a crematory (the first in Calhoun County). Work was completed the following year and the crematory was first used in May 1979.

 

Oak Hill Today

 

Today, as Oak Hill Cemetery celebrates over 160 years in the Battle Creek community, it remains steeped in the history of the city and the people it serves. Oak Hill Cemetery provides a resting place for the dead and solace for the living. The cemetery, a combination of the old and new, is the common ground shared by all.

 

NOTE: The majority of this article originally appeared in SCENE Magazine, August 1994, Vol. 19, # 8, page 34. (Battle Creek, MI) with additions from “Oak Hill Cemetery” by Gabby Sims, which originally appeared in SCENE magazine, February 1990, pages 11–15.

 

The burials located in Oak Hill Cemetery are listed on the website, Find A Grave.