Leonard & Matilda Olney
Leonard and Matilda Olney moved to a farm in Hillsdale in 1846, when it was then just a wilderness. Leonard was a successful cattle farmer and for many years a Trustee of the College. Since they owned quite a bit of land just west of the Oak Grove Cemetery, Leonard was asked by George Underwood to serve on its governing board.
In December, 1861, Leonard was elected as President of the Oak Grove Cemetery Association, and that same month a “lot was set apart for the purpose of a burial ground for such persons as may be killed or die while in service of the United States as soldiers or sailors.”
The women also formed a Ladies’ Oak Grove Cemetery Association – in 1867 – for the purpose of beautifying and embellishing the cemetery grounds. Up until that time, the so-called maintenance consisted of a yearly burning over of the weeds. The Hillsdale Standard called the Oak Grove Cemetery, “a disgrace to our town.”
Matilda served on the Executive Committee of the Ladies’ Oak Grove Cemetery Association with Mrs. Henry Waldron and others. The president was Mrs. George Underwood and Vice President was Ann Gridley. The fund raising projects were many, which included monthly entertainments such as a masquerade ball at the home of General and Mrs. C.J. Dickerson.
In the fall of 1868, the Ladies’ Association secured the “exclusive privilege” of selling refreshments at the Hillsdale County Fair. Mrs. Gridley was in charge and citizens of the town were invited to provide items for the refreshment tables, including “everything that people would like to eat.”
Mrs. Underwood was most emphatic in her proclamation to the Hillsdale Standard, reporting this was “the first time since our Association was organized that we have seen the way to make our work count." They all understood the necessity of improving the Cemetery. Some said, "This is a man's work - we will have nothing to do with it" - true, perhaps it is, still the work is undone. The women of Hillsdale knew what they needed to do. In the early 1870s, the need for a “public vault” was found to be a necessity.
A public vault, also called a receiving tomb, was constructed to hold bodies of those who died in winter, when the frozen ground prevented burial. By 1884, that structure, built in the northern part of the cemetery, had fallen into rough shape, and the road leading there almost impassable. Once again, the Ladies Association stepped in, organizing fund raisers at the local skating rink so that repair work might proceed.
Matilda Olney died in 1882, and Leonard, ten years later. In 1896, the Ladies Association, led by Mrs. F.W. Stock, raised the funds necessary to replace the fence along Montgomery Street.
Carol A. Lackey
(See Oak Grove Cemetery under Places > Other for additional related information.)