Niles History Center partners with Friends of Silverbrook to host cemetery tour

NILES — Tucked among the markers of Niles’ Silverbroook Cemetery are stories of local legends young and old. While at this time of year, scary movies are apt to depict graveyards as a chilling place to be, shrouded in eerie, rolling fog, this local haunt has a lot more than ghost stories in store.

To give people a glimpse into the past, the Niles History Center is partnering with the Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery to host a free educational tour at 10 a.m. Oct. 20, starting at the entrance of the Silverbrook Cemetery, at the corner of Main and Cherry streets. The event typically draws about 70 people to participate. Those interested are advised to call the history center in advance so that tour leaders know how many to expect. The history center can be reached at (269) 683-4700.

Mollie Kruck Watson, the assistant director of the Niles History Center and Candace Skalla, a Friends of Silverbrook volunteer will help to lead the cemetery tour. First purchased in 1836, Kruck Watson said Silverbrook cemetery is an ideal place to re-visit the stories of those who had a legacy in Niles.

“There is a lot of history of Silverbrook Cemetery,” Kruck Watson said. “One thing I like about cemeteries in general is if you want to know the history of the community, the local cemetery [is the place to find it]. There are so many stories there that reflect the history of the Niles area.”

The annual tours have a special emphasis each year. This year, Kruck Watson said the tour will examine grave markers and monuments, including the many unique symbols that one passing through the cemetery might notice.

“We will talk about what they mean, whether they are a veteran or different part of fraternal organizations or other societies,” Kruck Watson said. “We will even print them and try to see if people can spot them.”

A spectrum of headstones and grave markers help to make the Silverbrook Cemetery an interesting place to visit, Kruck Watson said. Those who take part in the tour will be able to view older soft stone markers, some with the names nearly faded away Victorian-era grand markers and — because it is an active cemetery — modern markers, too.

Historical re-enactors will also be part of the tour, helping to revive the stories of those laid to rest. Among them will be a re-enactor portraying Anna Eisner, a 19-year-old woman from Niles, who was given the promising opportunity to continue her studies in Europe back in 1875. According to a Niles Daily Star article posted to the Friends of Silverbrook Cemetery website, Eisner was described as one of the brightest in her class. But the young woman’s dreams were dashed when her ship, the SS Schiller, got into a wreck on the Atlantic Ocean. 

Eisner’s body was brought back to Niles. She was buried in a horizontal grave in Silverbrook cemetery. Her marker is of particular interest not just because of its writing in both English and German, but because of the upside-down torch symbols carved into the stone. According to Kruck Watson, the symbols looked like broom sticks, leading Eisner to earn the unfair moniker as the “Witch of Silverbrook Cemetery.”

However, Kruck Watson said upside torches are intended to signify the “extinguishing of life.”

She said helping to remember the lives of those lost while also debunking the myths that haunt the cemetery are an important part of the tour.

Other figures buried in Silverbrook that the tour will discuss are journalist Ring Lardner, early pioneer families, the families of Montgomery Ward, the Dodge brothers, the Chapin family and a number of Civil War veterans. Kruck Watson said Niles has a particularly strong tie to the Civil War, because the city housed the training camp for the 12th Michigan Infantry the camp was near where today’s Martin’s now stands.

Kruck Watson commended the Friends of Silverbrook for helping to preserve the cemetery’s history and integrity.

“They have put a lot of work into that cemetery,” Kruck Watson said. “They do a lot of work: planting and weeding and cleaning all year round.”

Kruck Watson said they will be sure to share upcoming projects that the Friends of Silverbrook are working to achieve. Highlighting today’s community efforts helps to connect history with the present, she said.

She encouraged those wishing to learn more about their community’s founders to participate.

“You’re going to learn a lot about the history of our community as you walk through the cemetery,” Kruck Watson said. “The symbolism is just interesting because it is something that is not necessarily unique to Silverbrook, so understanding that symbolism is something you can go to other cemeteries and recognize.”

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