Oak Grove Cemetery
The Oak Grove Cemetery Association was formed in accordance with the statutes of Michigan and had its first meeting on November 21, 1859. The present site was deemed to be located close enough to the city and was “remarkable for the undulating beauty of the ground and the variety and luxuriance of it foliage.” Twenty acres were purchased and laid out in regular plots of 24’x24’ (for $20) and 12’x24’ (for $10). Later, an additional five acres were purchased. If you look at the plots that are closest to Montgomery Street you can see the regularity of the first grave sites. The land may originally have belonged to Leonard Olney, who grazed cattle there... and apparently continued to do so after the sale of land to the Association, to the distress of several of the town pillars. Mr. Olney became president of the Association in December of 1861. It was at that time that a “lot was set apart for the purpose of such persons as may be killed or die while in service of the United States army as soldiers or sailors.”
In April of 1868, G.W. Underwood became the president of the Association. He came to Hillsdale in 1843 and established a drug store that sold medicines and surgical instruments, dyestuff, paints, oils, and groceries. He wasn’t a doctor, but was addressed as Dr. Underwood because it was a common practice to do so with druggists. He was the first mayor of Hillsdale when it was chartered in 1869 and built the three-story Underwood Opera House where Gelzer’s Hardware now stands. If you enter Gelzer’s by the front door and look up and to the right you’ll see where the stairs originally were placed. During his presidency of the Association a large stone gate at the south side of Oak Grove Cemetery was erected. It was removed when cars became too wide to pass through it.
It’s with the establishment of the Ladies’ Oak Grove Cemetery Association in 1867 that we can see that the idea of a lovely, dignified cemetery hadn’t gotten much traction in the town. The ladies noted that they wanted a cemetery with “... the grounds fenced with a new and substantial fence, roads laid out through the grounds and graveled, and shade-trees and evergreens set out in that portion of the ground that is open.” They sputtered, “It is putting the thing mildly to say that our cemetery as it now is, is a disgrace to our town, and it is not often that one finds a town of this size whose burial grounds have been neglected.” The ladies suggested the radical step of having all the societies and groups in town suspend their own activities to contribute the funds raised by their groups to the betterment of the cemetery. They also suggested that people give the gift of labor to beautify Oak Grove.
In September of 1868, the ladies were thrilled to have the “exclusive privilege” of selling refreshments at that year’s Hillsdale County Fair, held on September 30 and October 1 and 2. On Saturday, September 19, 1868, the ladies who were elected to preside over the various departments of work for the Fair were “notified of the responsibility,” (suggesting they might have been chosen because of their absence!).
Yet, despite the enthusiasm from the ladies, the Hillsdale Herald reported on May 4, 1882 that the cemetery was falling into disrepair. The Herald suggested that the health of the city was reflected in the present dilapidated and weedy cemetery that could not be kept up due to cemetery lots not being bought “in significant numbers to defray the current expenses.” However, something happened to change that. Perhaps it just took that long to collect enough funds, or perhaps those concerned about the cemetery were inspired when, in March or April of 1882, “six marble slabs at the depot were sent by the U.S. government for the graves of soldiers not previously marked.” At any rate, the original grid pattern was abandoned in favor of curved avenues and irregularly formed lots with artistic patches of shrubbery. This was in response to a movement begun in Boston by a noted “cemetery artist.” It well suited the rolling ground of Oak Grove, as any visitor to the cemetery today can see. In September of 1885, people responded enthusiastically to the call for help in placing the 1,240 feet of fence along Montgomery Street. Then, in the 1890’s there was an explosion of elaborate monuments erected by some of the leading men in the county, among them Henry Waldron, John P. Cook, Col. F.M. Holloway, Ezra L. Koon, and Charles T. Mitchell. These remain focal points around Oak Grove. It was reported by the Hillsdale Collegian in November of 1896 that about 600 lots had been sold and over 1500 burials had taken place.
Mrs. F.W. Stock (Wilhelmina) was essential in bringing Oak Grove to its glory. She helped financially and had many fund-raising functions in her home. Each fall she took in plants from the cemetery and tended to them until they could be replanted in the spring. Her devotion to Oak Grove was continued by Mrs. Alexander Stock (Emma) of the Koon family. The Koon plot features a lovely monument and statue.
JoAnne P. Miller