In the Cool Shade of Sighing Willows

A Note to My Readers:  I get riled up when it comes to the loss of a heritage site.  That and when I run out of Nespresso…but that is another story and much more easily remedied.   Every year I stop in my hometown of Auburn, New York to research and spend time in the field…in the pioneer burials…updating my information and to assure myself that the old burial monuments have been saved from time and another central New York winter.  It inspires me that I can walk down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland and pop into an ancient burying ground dating back centuries and it is serene, well-kept and almost to a startling degree…intact.  Conversely, it irks me to no end when I visit a cemetery in the city where I grew up and the quintessential pioneer cemetery has gone to ruin through vandalism and frankly neglect over a paltry century and a half.  Oh…not total neglect.  It is worse than that.  Begrudging sums were thrown at it over the last century where one sexton had to beg for $50 to tackle the care of the monuments and grounds over a year’s time.  Prisoners were utilized periodically to mow and weed as an economic ‘solution’ and every half-hearted effort added insult to injury.  After all, these were dead people that we cannot tax and we have things to do.  Not in one thing that I have read after 1870 thus far.. save one article in 1876.. shows respect and the sense of heritage that North Street Cemetery represents.  Fallen stones were carted away and graves left unmarked for eternity because…well because.  Lost.  Forever.  I cannot restore or reclaim these indignities and disregard for pioneer history, but I can raise awareness and inoculate today’s citizens with a good dose of HERITAGE MATTERS.

PIONEER DAYS

Auburn, New York has a rich pioneer history established by a few brave souls after the Revolutionary War.   Some of those souls are my Tyler descendants, headed by Gideon Tyler and his wife, Phebe Elliott, who migrated from the stony

Gideon Tyler Tombstone in North Street Cemetery

Gideon Tyler Tombstone in North Street Cemetery

fields of Connecticut to find a new life surrounded by the rich soil and plentiful fresh waters of central New York.   Gideon and his grown son, Amos, expanded their holdings and bought land in the Aurelius military tract in 1796 and the Tyler sons, William (my 4th great grandfather), Elliott, Warren and Salmon began to settle in and enlarge the family.  Early records show the existence of Tyler Springs, where Gideon and his family established their grist mill in Sennett and where settlers came from far and wide to process their grain.  Amos and his son, Nathaniel established an inn in Sennett that was run by several of his descendants.  Generations of Tylers played a role in the history of Cayuga County and can boast a Mayor of Auburn as one of them…James Elliott Tyler.

As a Tyler descendant and family historian, I can go on and on about the Tylers and their fellow pioneers because the history is that deep and rich.  And I am sure that there is much more to learn.  Like all of us who celebrate our heritage, I find it comforting to pay my respects in ancestral burying grounds…taking a moment to thank them for their courage and sacrifice.  And their neighbors and fellow settlers who made it a true community.  Because of these humble souls, I am fortunate to call this home.

Gideon’s youngest son, Gideon was the first burial in 1796 on what was then the Olmstead property before the formal establishment of it as a designated public burying ground.  The Olmsteads and the Tylers and the Dibbles were all Connecticut Yankees from Sharon and settled the area at the same time.   As a member of the First Congregational society of the village of Auburn, Gideon and his sons, Amos, Warren, Elliott and Salmon along with almost one hundred others paid a subscription to the trustees to establish North Street cemetery in 1810.   Subscribers included Noah Olmstead, Silas Hawley, Samuel Crossett, Edward Stevenson, Abraham Bristol, Lyman Paine, Jacob Doremus, John C. Jeffries, Caleb Woodworth, Ashtabel Treat, Jr., Bradley Tuttle, Benjamin Ryard, David Hyde, Elijah Esty, E. & H. Hills, Hart, Burt, Rufus Wells, John H. Cumpston, David Brick, Israel Reeve, John S. Burt, J. L. Richardson, Daniel Grant, Frederic Young, R. & T. Patty, Nathan Smith, David Clapp, Arthur Miller, Benjamin Polhemus, Henry Polhemus, Henry Amerman, John Demaree, William W. Cook, George Hudson, Peter Sedam, Lemuel Spoony, Zenas Goodrich, John Sawyer, William Court, Noah Taylor, James Rood, David Storke, James Murry, David Smith, Jeremiah Sutton, William Boyles, James Wilson, Aaron Hayden, David Eastman, Ambrose Olmstead, Ashbel Treat, Ezekial Goodrich, Noah Gilbert, Moses Gilbert, James Baker, Elijah Baker, Willys Lathrop, James W. Bridges, Elisha Patchin, Isaac Patchin, Timothy Doty, Matthew Rockwell, John Haire, Abraham Carpenter, Solomon Tibbits, Thomas Thut, Abraham Bonker, William Carpenter, Abraham Drake, Edward Allen, David Murray, Elisha Fitch, Jr., David Snow, Amos Bowen, Samuel Bonker, Jehiel Clark, Joseph Cole, David Horoer(sic), Robert Dill, H. & J. Pace, Seth Kruger, Ephraim Hammond, Isaac Camp, Thomas Hibberd,  Silas Olmstead, Friend Phelps, Abner Beech, George Smith, Nicol Parker, David Brinkerhoff, E. T. Throop, Oliver Lynch, R. Porter, Chancy Dibble, E. Williams, Jr.

Warren was the only Tyler to move west to Illinois with his wife, Diadema Hatch and their children.  Though there is no burial record for Salmon Tyler, it is fair to surmise that he was buried in North Street Cemetery or in Throopsville Cemetery where his children are buried.  Gideon and Phebe and sons, William and his wife, Abilena Bartlett and Amos and his wife, Elizabeth Goodrich and Phebe Tyler Stewart  are recorded buried in North Street.   Only the monuments of William and Abilena Tyler and Phebe Tyler Stewart, Gideon and Phebe’s youngest child, are missing…probably because they were buried further back and subject to vandalism.  Daughter Deborah and her husband, Timothy Doty settled in Sennett and is buried in Throop.  Mary “Polly” married Thomas Barnes and settled in Throop where she is buried.  Their stones remain though Deborah’s has fallen.

But of course, the focus is on the history of North Street Cemetery.

AN UNPLEASANT TRUTH

North Street Cemetery NYS Historical Marker

North Street Cemetery NYS Historical Marker

The first time I visited the North Street Cemetery I was armed with an old list and I was so excited when I approached the wrought iron fence along North Street.   Peering through the fence, the first stones I spotted were the Tylers…Gideon and Phebe.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  These were the earliest stones so as I stepped into the cemetery, I had high hopes to find an amazing pioneer burial grounds.   Then I walked a few feet in and my heart dropped.  It became worse as I walked to the back of the cemetery and the poor condition of the few remaining monuments told the story along with a vast emptiness in what had been a significant burying ground.   Hundreds of pioneers lay at my feet with nary a stone monument.  My research told me so…but my eyes…tearing up…told me an unpleasant truth.

I needed to know why and set about to learn what I could about how a community’s earliest cemetery could come to such a state.

The “haunting of North Street Cemetery” just may have more to do with bad politics than any other single reason.

I have posted a few times in the past about North Street Cemetery…its historic significance and its inexplicably deplorable condition. It must be something in the air…undefinable…but definitely contagious to the politicians over the years. At one time the city fathers and citizens took pride in the cemetery and in 1850 it was planted with lovely trees and flower beds and pathways that had benches strategically placed for those that cared to walk the cemetery to visit departed family members or just for an afternoon stroll.  The last few words tell us that long before the 1850 clean up and improvements that the cemetery was allowed to fall into disrepair.

IMPROVEMENT OF THE NORTH STREET CEMETERY-Auburn NY Journal, July 1850

The Common Council are improving the North Street Cemetery by removing the brambles and surplus shrubbery therefrom, laying walks between the tiers of graves, and grading the surface of the ground to as near a level exits natural conformation will admit.  This will be an excellent improvement upon the whole, if the walks shall be graveled; yet it will have something more of a garden-bed appearance than is really tasteful.  It will admonish our citizens who have friends buried there to re-adjust their monument to suit the modern walks and grading, so that upon the whole the Cemetery will present a far better appearance than it has for several years.

In 1851 Fort Hill was opened for business and North Street slid back into deterioration though determined loved ones continued to bury their family members there.

North Street belonged to the entire community and thus it had a potter’s field where indigents and unclaimed bodies from the prison were given a ‘decent’ burial.  Burials continued for decades until the sexton came to Auburn politicians with the news that the cemetery was ‘full’ in 1873.  I understand that at one time, desperate loved ones buried their dead on top of another family member in the middle of the night because they were refused a permit.

Dozens of Civil War veterans are buried there and monuments had been installed for each after the passage of a federal law in 1873. Auburn Police chief and Civil War veteran Charles W. Jennings and my great grandmother’s brother organized the effort for the area with Charles H. Shapley and Thomas J. Bell. Even with his good efforts, three Civil War soldiers’ graves –men of the 193rd- were found with worn and cracked wooden ‘boards’ at the east end ‘among the disregarded graves.’  Reading the accounts of their efforts, these men and fellow veterans, walked the Cayuga County cemeteries on a mission for over three years…and they missed these three because they were in an unkempt area of North Street cemetery.

The Auburn NY Morning Dispatch, September 12, 1886 decries

In the cool shade of sighing willows, which fan breezes laden with the sweetness of clover over the many disregarded graves in the east end of the North street cemetery, on a slight eminence well- populated with the dead, three plain round-topped board, well cracked from exposure to the sun and weather, designate the location where three of the 193d. who resigned their lives to their country’s defense, are resting.  They are inscribed:  “L. CRONK. Died April 5, 1863 Aged 16 years. Co. G, 193 N.Y. Vol.”  “R. CROSSET. Died April 3, 1865. Aged 17 years, 193 N.Y. Vol.”  G. ALLEN, Volunteer, Veteran 193”.

Strangers, foreigners, in these parts, if they gazed upon these crude, sickly memorials would be apt to recall the oft-quoted adage that the Republics are ungrateful.  There is no excuse for this condition of affairs, however.  The government has generously provided granite stones to mark the tombs of the fallen dead, and it does seem as if the veterans should interest themselves in procuring more imposing headstones for their form(er) comrades.

Charles W. Jennings is buried in North Street Cemetery in 1902 and today his veteran’s stone no longer marks his grave.  In fact, I had to refer to old burial records and a sexton’s hand-drawn map made in 1875 at the request of the Common Council and supplemented by the record book that began to be kept in 1881 to figure out where the Jennings family plot is located.  The last Jennings burial in North Street Cemetery was Charles’ sister, Harriet Jennings White, who died in 1944.  She was a devout Methodist who was active in her church and in fact saved it from burning to the ground.  She was also a beloved family member of my father’s family.  There is no way that she would have been buried in an unmarked grave, but like her other family members buried in North Street Cemetery…no stone exists.

The recorded statements of the politicians about its obvious deterioration boggle the mind. In a city council meeting in 1876, the disagreement over burials in North Street Cemetery became heated. It had been three years since it had been declared full and the desperate sexton was pleading for help.   Alderman Hudson and Alderman Wheeler (who would become mayor and the nemesis of Charles W. Jennings) saw no reason to invest in North Street Cemetery and that people could be ‘buried in the roadways’ thus eliminating the pathways throughout the cemetery. Mourners and undertakers carrying caskets would be forced to walk over the graves and between the narrow spaces of monuments. Keep in mind that by that time the cemetery was declared full and though today there are a paltry few left, it was dense with gravestones at that time.

Aldermen Perkins and Crocker and Rathbun fought the penurious pair and eventually additional land was purchased from Mr. Amizi Wood to provide additional proper burial space for Auburn’s citizens. The reported debate in a public council meeting gives a clue as to the resistance to expand. Wheeler stated that the

north street cemetery, comprising less than eight acres, had been occupied for the past 80 years. For 55 years of that time it was the exclusive burial ground for the entire city. Twenty-five years ago Fort Hill cemetery was started, and more recently the Catholic cemetery. Not one third of the lots on Fort Hill had been sold in 25 years.

It isn’t a small leap to understand that Fort Hill needed burial business and North Street was ‘old’ and no longer had the social panache and would be taking away ‘business’ from Fort Hill. A good number of folks preferred to be buried in North Street with their family members. Money and class might just be the culprits that found its way to the demise of a heritage site of Auburn’s pioneer families.

Why not have both the presence of new success while preserving the resting place of those that established the community? Why let one go to ruin?

Some communities have a core of individuals who understand and protect its heritage and for generations it shines through.  Did we never have that?  Or was it such a small group that it could only make an occasional difference?

NORTH STREET CEMETERY AND THE  CITIZEN ANGEL

Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen Frank Avery Skilton Obit1931 - 0050I am inspired by the late Frank Avery Skilton, a gentleman from Auburn with a great sense of history and with a particular fondness for North Street Cemetery.  He left behind a collection of personal papers that most surely would be uplifting and enlightening.  I followed Mr. Skilton’s Auburn activities for decades…his law career and his lectures on Mexico and Auburn’s history and genealogy.  And his railing against the powers that be…pleading to honor the pioneers of North Street Cemetery.  His editorials were full of passion and conviction that we not abandon our own honor.

When he died in January of 1931 at the age of 70, his citizen voice was silenced and he left behind a rich library of material that he had collected over the years.  After his death, his wife, Clare, also a genealogist, wrote an editorial about his extensive work and papers and books he left behind.  Among other important historical and genealogical organizations, Mr. Skilton was a trustee of the Cayuga County Historical Society…could he have willed his collection to them?    If that is true, it would be THE most important collection that they would have.  As I write this, it is the Fourth of July and I am itching to give them a call to find out if they have them in their archives.  And to tell them to guard them with their very lives because I am packing my bags and heading there the minute I hang up the phone!

This last article I found from 1950 pretty much sums up the political ‘disease’ that contributed to North Cemetery’s Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen Advertiser 9 June 1950  North St care criticizedcondition.  One man stood up to confront the City Council, Henry J. Barretts of 18 Jarvis Street.  The question is…Mr. Councilman Charles Parker, how can you walk THE pioneer cemetery of Auburn with its appalling condition and declare it well kept? And how in the world can you have the temerity to utter those words and ask your citizens to deny what is before their own eyes?  And Mayor Boyle..shutting down a concerned citizen…with a sense of honor…I have one word.  Shame.

Makes me want to dig up these foolish old buggers, ask them why and kick them in their…well whatever is left!  I am pretty confident we can find THEM….in Fort Hill Cemetery with perpetual care.

Author’s Note:   If I sound feisty, it is because we cannot turn back the hands of time and resurrect a building or restore a cemetery the size of North Street Cemetery from generations of inexplicable mistreatment.  With some decent money, expertise and willing hands…and a solid maintenance line item in Auburn’s budget…perhaps we can grant peace to the sighing willows and regain our heritage and civic pride and perhaps pay tribute to citizens like Frank Avery Skilton.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

-and daughter of Auburn, New York

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3 thoughts on “In the Cool Shade of Sighing Willows

  1. I wonder why garden clubs or scout troops don’t see the need and take on the care of these old cemeteries. Ones in Europe are far older but the stones are still there.

  2. Thank you for this post. My 3rd great-grandfather, James Murray, and David Murray (possibly my 4th great-grandfather), appear on the list of subscribers for North St Cemetery. I’ve never located James’ burial place, but now realize he’s probably there. (where his wife and 3 of his children are buried). If you have the chance to let me know the source for that subscriber list information, I’d love to track it down to see if I can uncover any other details.

    P.S. I’ve just spent part of the afternoon reading/scanning all of your posts–so envious of your visits to the Auburn area.

  3. Thank you for sharing this history of the North Street Cemetery. My grand-uncle and his wife, Richard and Elizabeth (Van Ommen) Hitchcock are buried there. In 2003, I was successful in obtaining a new monument for Richard due to documenting his service in the 75th NY Volunteers and the 22nd NY Cavalry. Other family members are in Fort Hill Cemetery.

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