GTPulse: Learn The History Of Traverse City By Walking Through A Cemetery

Oakwood Cemetery in Traverse City is the final resting home for many who made the Traverse area what it is today.

There are a lot of Traverse City-isms that I don’t know or understand yet. A new friend recently told me that I still have a tourist’s view of things. Living here, for me, has been a balance of getting acclimated to the culture of the city. I’ve experienced a lot of cultural nuances so far, things like scouring Women’s Resource Center for nick knacks to put in my apartment, and getting flipped off after almost getting t-boned on the corner of Cass and Washington. However, there is still a lot I’ve yet to experience. To help bring me closer to knowing and understanding the Traverse community, I decided to attend a Traverse Area Historical Society Oakwood Cemetery tour. What better way to bathe in some of the rich history of the Grand Traverse area than to walk around and hear about some of the wild and inspiring things that the dead residents past have done?

The tours are hosted by Larry Hains, a lifelong Traverse City resident. The first person Larry introduces us to on the tour is William Germaine. William, or Wild Bill as he’s referred to, served as mayor of Traverse City from 1908-1910, and again from 1912-1913. Wild Bill passed on in 1943, which is when Larry was born.

“He died in 1943, and I was born in 1943. I’m pretty mild, though,” Larry joked.

Larry has been conducting the cemetery tours since 2015. Larry retired in 2013 and became a board member of the Traverse Are Historical Society in 2015. Throughout the tour he fondly referenced a genealogist from TAHS that he used to give the tours with, a woman named Gini LeClaire. Through Gini’s relentless research about some of the people who were buried in Oakwood Cemetery there are pictures and really cool stories provided throughout the tour. A particularly outstanding story of one of the buried was of Augusta Rosenthal-Thompson. She graduated from University of Michigan and was the first female physician in Northern Michigan. Her grave went unmarked until 2013, when the Grand Traverse Area Genealogical Society was able to provide her a headstone from a grant provided by Zonta Club of Traverse City.

Gini and Larry split the tours, her conducting half and him conducting the other half. A surgery required Gini to take it easy, so Larry took on giving all the tours. He enjoyed giving the tours because when he started at TAHS as a volunteer he did a lot of research on the history of the Traverse area.

“I grew up here, so I kind of knew the 40s on, but it wasn’t until after I retired that I really found out more. I went to volunteer at the society and accessing pictures and so on, I had some computer skills from the IRS. It was there that I really realized that I didn’t know much about Traverse City from when it was founded to when I was born.”

Having four years of giving tours under his belt, as well as having done so much historical research as a volunteer has made Larry a perfect guide for the tours. To say that he doesn’t have favorites in the cemetery would be a lie.

“Well, Bill Germaine is certainly one of the most colorful characters, and I love Perry Hannah because I don’t think Perry Hannah got as much recognition as he should have. He just did so much, he’s the one that has the vision that this is a beautiful place, and he didn’t want it to close down as a logging town.”

Many of the characters introduced on the tour are people who had a direct impact on the building and success of Traverse City. I was fascinated to see such a wide array of the different occupations and influence that these people had within the Traverse area. The man who began the National Cherry Festival is buried at Oakwood Cemetery. Larry joked that if we wanted to step on the headstone of the man who started the festival, here was our chance.

The stories of the dead were just as varied as the headstones. There were some grand, some small, some stone and some…wood. Wood headstones were one of the oldest ways to mark graves, and there are a few in the cemetery, but the oldest headstone there is from 1786. People used to use symbols on gravestones that meant something about their life. A life cut short could be signified with a lamb, or a tree stump cut in half. A full life was signified by a bushel of wheat. Larry told us that elaborate headstones and statues are all indicators of the family’s financial situation. 19-year-old Ida Greilick (think Greilickville) died in a carriage accident in Chicago in 1888 and her distraught family buried her with a large headstone topped with a sculpture of Ida where she is holding flowers and has a star on her head. It was one of the most ornate gravestones I’ve ever seen and it was moving to think about a family showing their grief with such a beautiful statue. It’s easy to begin to wonder about the people in the stories Larry told us about.

The tour is a great way to spend an afternoon. The Oakwood Cemetery is tranquil, with lots of trees and a peaceful quietness throughout. It’s fascinating to look at the wide variety of dates, headstones and people that are laid to rest. Spend a couple hours walking through the cemetery with Larry, if you’re new like me it will make you feel that much more like a local.

Categories: GTPulse