Bob Brown speaks at the Niles-Buchanan Rotary Club meeting Monday at Riverfront Cafe in Niles. Leader photo/JOHN EBY

Archived Story

Friends help resurrect cemetery

Published 5:47pm Monday, December 3, 2012

Rufus Rose gives two Niles churches and a Buchanan cemetery something in common.

The 19th-century Chicago architect designed the curvy old section of Oak Ridge Cemetery and Catholic and Methodist churches in Niles.

Friends of Oak Ridge Cemetery in Buchanan formed almost 10 years ago with the primary objective of cleaning and repairing grave stones and monuments in the old part.

Lyle Sumerix, the late journalist who wrote for the Berrien County Record and the South Bend Tribune, lived near the cemetery and founded the Friends in 2003 in response to broken stones he saw.

Land on the west side of the city where 9,000 are buried was purchased in 1864, with the first burials in 1868. There are two public buildings, a chapel named for an aviator and the sexton’s office and three mausoleums.

In addition to cleaning and repairing grave stones, Friends undertook other projects aimed at making the cemetery and Buchanan history more accessible to the public.

These projects included compiling information and erecting a memorial plaque to commemorate 117 interred in the village’s first cemetery — the “Old Burying Ground,” now known as Kathryn Park.

A similar plaque was erected on May 10, 2008, listing the names of 147 persons buried in Potter’s Field. The reference originates with the Bible, Matthew 27:7. “It was originally a burial place for foreigners. Today, Potter’s Field is for people who don’t have money to pay for the burial,” Bob Brown told Niles-Buchanan Rotary Club Monday noon at Riverfront Café. “Sixty-four percent of these are infants, 2 years old or less. For comparison, in the Grand Haven Potter’s Field, the three major causes of death were stillborn, consumption (tuberculosis) and summer’s complaint (food poisoning before modern refrigeration).

On Oct. 30, 2008, an overhead arch was added to fieldstone columns at the Front Street entrance. It was dedicated June 27, 2009.

There has been a cemetery walk since 2001, with Berrien County genealogical and historical societies sponsoring them to promote Buchanan’s history.

Brown joined in 2004, the year of the Friends’ first walk.

In 2005, the Friends published a cemetery index, or census, listing all individuals buried in the cemetery through December 2004.

In 2008, “The Story of Portage Prairie” by longtime Bertrand Township resident Alma (Vite) Hartline was reprinted. Brown edits a quarterly newsletter started in 2006.

Some stones, such as those marking the final resting places of Civil War soldiers, settle into the ground. One became entirely buried that was recovered. It might take a winch and tripod to right them. Some need new bases.

Joseph Coveney had been an Episcopalian in Ireland before he became an atheist.

His ornate tombstone in Oak Ridge pays tribute to his “free-thinking” ideals and has become something of a tourist attraction for irreverent statements, such as “nature is the true God, science the true religion; the more religion, the more lying; the more saints, the more hypocrites.”

His death was noted in the New York Times under the headline “Death of an Infidel: Last Words of Joseph Coveney of Michigan were ‘Die as I lived.’ ”

The tallest stone belongs to Capt. George H. Richards, an early Buchanan industrialist who operated Zinc Collar and Pad Plant, which made horse collars.

In September, the Friends filled in a Civil War inscription left blank for 114 years.

“This ‘cannon’ can’t fire this type of cannonballs,” Brown said. “They’re too large, and it fired bullet-shaped projectiles. The Parrott Rifle was on a ship in the Civil War and brought to Buchanan in 1897. About 2,000 people showed up for its dedication.”

Friends meet on the third Tuesday at 7 p.m. of every month except December at First Presbyterian Church, 115 W. Front St., Buchanan.

About Bob Brown

• President, Friends of Oak Ridge Cemetery

• 1966 Buchanan High School graduate

• Bachelor’s degree, Kalamazoo College, biology

• Master’s degree and doctorate, Oregon State University, entomology

• Spent most of his career as entomologist in Riverside, Calif., plus a few years in North Carolina

• Lives in South Bend

• Brown’s favorite inscription isn’t in Oak Ridge, but “That’s All Folks” on Mel Blanc’s headstone. That’s the tag line of Warner Brothers cartoons Blanc voiced before dying in 1989.

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