Rest in Peace: Cemeteries in Hillsdale County
Through the years Hillsdale County has had over 90 cemeteries. Not all remain; some have been moved and some abandoned. Others have been obliterated, their inhabitants lost and forgotten. Credo Cemetery, near the edge of Brazee Lake, was eventually inundated with water.
The Bacon Farm grave in Ransom has “one small girl.” It wasn’t unusual for families to have their own burial ground if they lived in a rural area. What happened to the graves when the family farm was sold is not always known. On the front page of the July 21, 1846, Hillsdale Whig Standard a notice from R.T.T. Johnson stated, “The subscriber having purchased the premises formerly occupied as a burying ground, lying on the road from this village to the Brick Yard would respectfully inform those who wish to remove their deceased friends, that he intends cultivating the ground, beginning the first of September next.” It’s probable that most private graveyards like this one didn’t get the benefit of such a warning when they were due to be used for another purpose.
Many Potawatomi were buried around the county, of course, and some were reportedly buried in St. Anthony’s Cemetery to the south of the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds, though there is no proof of this. St. Anthony’s Cemetery was established in 1860, just two years after the founding of the church. Like other old burial places, the graves hold the history of the times. In the early days of the county many young mothers died in childbirth, and many children didn’t survive their own births either. When both died, they were often buried in the same grave, with other babies buried in their parents’ plot. Twenty-eight little ones, however, are buried in the “Baby Section.”
Some people got creeped out at the thought of being buried in the ground. Sensational (hopefully untrue) 19th century stories of folks who were supposedly dead but really only in a coma may have fed this fear. Being buried alive, trapped into a long, agonizing death in a box underground, could, indeed, create a terrifying scenario. For those people, the Hillsdale Mausoleum was a comforting solution. Dedicated on Dec. 12, 1911, it provided a crypt above ground that each person, though dead, owned.
Pictures of the Mausoleum in its decline show a blocky, unattractive building that looks like a warehouse. In its glory, however, the grounds were beautifully landscaped, and inside it was lovely. Two kinds of marble were used for trimmings and furnishings, and the floor was of tiled mosaic. Plants were in abundance to create a peaceful, contemplative environment. It was built of concrete to minimize upkeep, but that didn’t prevent its degeneration in the years after the founders themselves took up residence in it. By the mid-1900s it had become both an eyesore and a destination for adventuresome kids. Many longtime county residents who led productive, non-lawbreaking adult lives can tell interesting tales of surreptitiously visiting the Mausoleum after gaping cracks in its exterior opened a new, slightly scary world to them. With cracked ceilings, shattered stained-glass windows and rubbish, not to mention the presence of dead bodies, the Mausoleum must have provided unique entertainment for those braving a visit.
By 1961 the Mausoleum was almost a complete wreck. The bodies still remaining there were moved to other cemeteries, most buried underground this time. Then the local Army reservists got a chance to practice their demolition technique. It took several days to finish the job, during which percussive blasts were felt for miles around. Today a house sits on the site, the owners unconcerned about the previous use for their property. They enjoy the neighborhood and the quiet neighbors across the street in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Many cemeteries provided an area for those without financial resources for a burial. “Potter’s Field” was the term often used to describe this space. The term came from a story in the book of Mathew in the New Testament. After Judas received 30 pieces of silver from the Romans for betraying Jesus, he was overcome with guilt. He took the silver to the chief priests of the temple saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” When the priests refused to accept it because it was blood money, Judas threw down the silver and left, soon thereafter hanging himself. The priests deliberated and finally decided to use the money to purchase a place to bury strangers. It is thought that the original site was in a valley that was the source of potter’s clay, and that’s where the designation of “Potter’s Field” originates.
In Hillsdale County many of the current cemeteries have a provision for burial for the indigent, some in a particular section of the cemetery and some scattered throughout the cemetery. Until the Friends of Mitchell Research Center gave a list to the sexton, the King Lake Cemetery in Hillsdale Township had no record of any Potter’s Field. That may have explained a rather startling discovery about a decade ago. A plot with no recorded owner had been sold. When the site was opened for burial, some remains were found. They may have been those of an indigent person, buried without charge … or any marker.
In Wright Township a unique provision exists. Anyone who lives there can be buried in either the Prattville or Waldron cemetery with only the expense of the casket and the opening and closing of the grave. People can also buy a particular plot.
Oak Grove Cemetery was established in 1859 as a private burial ground. Atypically for a nonpublic cemetery, a section was designated for a Potter’s Field. It is located down the hill and into the woods that stretch northeast from the entrance. About 50 people are buried there, some within the woods and some in the open area in front of it. One grave is believed to be that of E.C. Middleton, a Civil War soldier. It’s hard to know how many tombstones have existed through the years, but today five degenerating grave markers are visible in front of the woods.
Fill dirt has been dumped into the eastern edge of Potter’s Field in order to extend the area available for grave sites. Those who planned the extension of the cemetery were not aware of the existence of Potter’s Field, so this was done as a practical matter and without malice. However, the encroachment and possible loss of the only grave markers to indicate sites where people were buried spurred the Society to help protect this unique part of our county history. With a grant from the Hillsdale County Community Foundation and funds from the Society, in the summer of 2015 an arch and a tombstone with all the known people who are buried in Potter’s Field, along with an explanation of the origin of the term “Potter’s Field,” was dedicated. A brief service at Potter’s Field in Oak Grove Cemetery to dedicate the arch and memorial site. It was an opportunity to remember the people buried there so long ago who represent the way we should care for each other, regardless of our station in life.
JoAnne P. Miller