Whistle If You Dare
Northern Express heads into some of the North’s most captivating graveyards
By Ross Boissoneau | Oct. 24, 2020
’Tis the season … the season for visiting people’s final resting places. Maybe you’re of a slightly morbid fascination, and you find cemeteries interesting because of the ghost stories you read as a child. Perhaps you enjoy tracing history and genealogy through the graves of your ancestors. Or maybe you just like the peace and quiet attendant to such place
Whatever your reason, it’s typically around the Halloween season when people start thinking about whistling past — or through — the graveyard. And there are plenty of them out there.
FOR FRAIDY CATS
Oakwood Cemetery in Traverse City is the largest and most well-known cemetery in the region. Though it’s technically separate, the grounds are also home to Oakwood Catholic Cemetery. Sexton Branden Morgan says the Halloween season at the sprawling, 90-acre cemetery doesn’t really bring much change to the surroundings, though sometimes younger people wander in more than during the rest of the year.
One group that won’t be around this year is the Traverse Area Historical Society. It typically offers tours of the cemetery, but now the “tours” have been moved online. Different days offer different stops on the tour. (Start at its website at TraverseHistory.Wordpress.com, then and scroll down to the notice of the Oakwood Virtual Tour.
Oakwood is the final resting place for many of the area’s historical figures, such as Perry Hannah, Conrad Foster, Dr. David Goodale (Traverse City’s first physician), and Helen Goodale (the first teacher). Others include Hildegarde Grawn Milliken, William Milliken’s mother and the daughter of Charles T. Grawn, onetime superintendent of Traverse City Schools and later of the State Normal School in Mount Pleasant, now Central Michigan University; George Alderton, founder of the State of Michigan Sports Hall of Fame; and the Hull family (Henry Hull founded the Oval Wood Dish Company, the second-largest employer in Traverse City).
Morgan finds the cemetery peaceful, rather than creepy. Though he does admit he’s had a few encounters that he can’t explain, such as occasionally catching sight of someone in his peripheral vision who isn’t there when he turns to look.
A GHOST TOWN BURNING
If something a bit spookier is what you’re after, head to Pere Cheney Cemetery. According to the website Mysterious Heartland, it is home of one of the Top Ten witch graves (actually ranked No. 2) in the Midwest.
Its spooky quotient makes sense, given that Pere Cheney is itself a ghost town. The first settlement in Crawford County, circa 1874, Pere Cheney was located east of where I-75 is now, about nine miles south and east of Grayling. The population peaked at 1,500 after being settled, but by 1917, the population had dropped to fewer than 20 people, and the town was abandoned the following year.
What happened? Pere Cheney was decimated by an outbreak of diphtheria in 1893, followed by a devastating fire. In 1897, another outbreak of diphtheria swept through the village, this time with smallpox and scarlet fever too.
The logical explanation for the fire was that it was caused by sparks from the town’s timber mills (founding father George M. Cheney built the first sawmill there). A darker explanation was that people from surrounding towns set Pere Cheney aflame to prevent the spread of disease.
Or, maybe it was a vengeful witch, some say, who caused both the epidemics and the fire. After her neighbors had banished her to the surrounding wilderness — history doesn’t tell us what her transgressions supposedly were — she cursed the land. Another legend says she was later hanged from a tree in the cemetery, and her body was burned. Or buried there among the 90 graves. To this day, some visitors claim to have seen her ghost haunting Pere Cheney Cemetery.
What’s next — headstones that glow in the dark? As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what’s next, and apparently, it’s no joke. Local history enthusiast David Smith recalled how his elderly cousin talked about taking her grandchildren to see the glowing gravestones of Forest Hill Cemetery in Evart. Smith said she was the first female mayor there and was well-known and well-versed in the area’s history.
She’s not the only source either. In 1998, the fabled glowing stones were investigated by the editor of the Evart Review. A three-week investigation into the lights — which could be seen while one was in the cemetery but disappeared when one got too close — yielded no clues. Reflections from passing vehicles, remote-controlled lights, and phosphorescent paint on the stones were all ruled out.
Apparently, the situation goes back to the 1800s, when legend has it Guido Bandura, the cook for the crew constructing the nearby Flint and Pere Marquette railroad, was in charge of lighting kerosene lanterns along the path from the rail bed to the cook’s shanty. During a fight, his son Marco was pushed into the Muskegon River. Upon hearing this, Guido dove in after Marco; neither was seen again.
The camp was near the cemetery, and at some point after the incident, people began to see the lights glowing there. Legend had it they were the lights of the elder Bandura, whether set out for the men or for his lost son is not known.
HERE LIES LOCAL HEROES
More peaceful stories come from Benzie County, where local historian Jane Purkis is happy to talk cemeteries. “I’m interested in history, and one place to find it is in cemeteries. They’re also just pleasant places to visit,” she said.
That’s right, no witches, no luminous headstones; just some engaging information on days gone by. At the Joyfield Township Cemetery, Purkis said there are a couple of headstones memorializing members of the USCT, the United States Colored Troops in the Union Army. Both David Imes and George Cowen were members of the USCT. In fact, the latter was a member of the unit the movie Glory was based on.
“The family that gave the land [for the cemetery] was Black,” said Purkis. That would be William and Mildred Davis, the former the son of a plantation owner and a slave woman. Upon the death of their daughter, they sold five acres of land to the township for the cemetery. Also buried there is Amaziah Joy, the township's first white settler, for whom the township is named.
Purkis said it’s not so surprising when one looks at the history of the area. “A lot of Civil War veterans settled in Benzonia following the war,” she said, noting many of them were abolitionists who were buried in Benzonia Township Cemetery. She said one of the attractions was the establishment of a liberal arts college in Benzonia based on the model of Oberlin College in Ohio.
“It was established by folks from New York,” she said, and it was open not only to white men but to women and Blacks as well. “It was open to different races [and genders, based] on the Oberlin design.”
Benzonia Township Cemetery is also the final resting place of Bruce Catton. The renowned historian, journalist, and author won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954. He also was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford in 1977. Catton was born in Petoskey but spent much of his life in Benzie County.
Of course, there are hundreds of other cemeteries scattered across the region, with tens of thousands of stories about those interred there. For example, the Swedish Missionary Cemetery south of Leland (also known as Good Harbor Church Cemetery) was affiliated with Swedish Missionary Lutheran Church. While the church no longer exists, the cemetery does. It includes the not-quite-final resting places of those from the schooner John P. March, which ran aground at Good Harbor Bay during a snowstorm on Oct. 30, 1878. They were lost to the sea as they attempted to make shore, but the bodies were later retrieved for reburial by their families.
Genealogist Matt McCormack of Alpena said he has visited cemeteries across the northern part of the state as part of his work. “Sometimes you get tidbits of information such as birthplace. Early on, most people were illiterate, so you may find an anchor [on a stone] for someone who worked on a ship, or a lamb if it was a baby or young person who died,” he said.
Another tip. Sometimes a headstone is only partially done, with one side left rough. He said that can indicate a person who died in their ’40s or ’50s. “An unfinished stone is like an unfinished life.”
McCormack said another tradition, more popular in New England than here, was including both a headstone and a footstone. That tradition was based on the beds of the living, which have both headboards and footboards; folks did the same for the dead, enabling them to sleep through eternity and, well, something far less romantic: “It also indicated how tall they were.”
••• How to Clean a Gravestone •••
Jane Purkis and David Smith know headstones. Once a month in the summer, Purkis hosts a monthly cleanup day at a different cemetery in Benzie County. Meanwhile, Smith works with other members of Robert Finch Camp No. 14, a Civil War-enthusiasts group, to clean the graves of veterans.
Smith said the key to proper cleaning is a product called D2 Biological Solution. It’s made specifically for cleaning headstones. Smith said the first step is to hose off the stone, then spray the solution on it. “Let it set, then use a soft brush. Then hose it off and do it again,” he said.
After a couple applications, he said the stone will likely look worse, as the solution brings the crud to the surface. But Smith said he’s comfortable walking away from it even when it looks bad. “I’ll mist it and leave it. You come back a couple of weeks later and be shocked at how clean it is,” he said. “When the rain hits, it extracts the material.”
That’s what he said he did when he went to the grave of his grandfather’s sister with one of his relatives. They went back three weeks later, and the stone was completely white, exposing details he wasn’t even aware of. “I never knew it had decorative flowers chiseled into it. I never knew it was there. It completely shocked me.”
Purkis knows all about D2, and she does tell her volunteers about it, but she doesn’t use it. “I show people D2, but it’s so expensive,” she said. (Smith said he gets it from a supplier in Holland, and it’s also available on Amazon, where a kit including a gallon of the solution, a sprayer, a plastic scraper, and a brush retails for $126.)
Instead, Purkis supplies her volunteers with an inexpensive kit that includes a bucket and additional jugs for water, a series of different brushes and plastic scrapers. Nothing metal, as that would damage the stone.
The secret ingredient? Elbow grease, and plenty of it. “We go through a lot of toothbrushes,” she said. “We just try to get rid of the worst of the lichen.”
Photo of Evart Cemetary's glowing headstones above courtesy of www.Leelanau.com