After decades of sitting undisturbed, a forgotten cemetery in Glen Arbor has captivated the small community determined to learn the names and stories of residents past.
From 1879 to 1927, residents of Glen Arbor were buried in the township cemetery. In 1970, the cemetery was sold as part of the land sale of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Historians claim it shouldn’t have been part of the sale, and when the township regained control of the property several years ago, they were determined to unravel the mystery of who is resting there.
In the past three years, eighth-grade students at Glen Lake have worked with community members to piece the puzzle together. Melissa Okerlund, eighth-grade teacher from Glen Lake, started the ancestry recovery project several years ago. Friday, the students took a field trip to the cemetery and other historical places in Glen Arbor as part of their ongoing work.
“We’re building files and information as we go. For example, just today my students found a death certificate was not in the folder of files,” Okerlund said.
The students have yet to exhaust the list of 51 people connected to the cemetery through obituaries. Only 13 headstones remain on the grounds.
Local historian Andrew White used his expertise to build a system to organize the information the students uncover.
“Andrew White has been invaluable because he has really done the lion’s share of building folders filled with copies of old microfilm images of old newspapers with obituaries,” Okerlund said.
The students also utilize death certificates, census data and familysearch.org.
“It’s really exciting when we discover something, even if it’s something that might seem minor like that they’re interested in knowing, for example, what were the names of the children that a couple had,” Okerlund said. “It is helping to create a fuller picture of who these human beings were.”
Known people to have been buried in the cemetery include:
- Glenn Burgess, age 7, who was shot by his brother
- Robert Dowey and Frank Golden, both victims of a horrific shipwreck in 1879
- Several members of the Fisher family
- Kate Trumbull Jensen, who died at age 24 just after giving birth to a daughter
- William Knickerbocker, who was murdered by his lover’s husband
- Nels Oleson, clerk for a company store whose descendants live in this area
- Burr Parker, a local lumberjack with nine siblings, he died of alcoholism
- Joseph Franklin Todd, born in 1827 and died in 1874 from suicide
Past classes of the eighth-graders have contributed major bits of information that connected those buried in the cemetery to residents still living in Glen Arbor today.
“Last year we found a whole book about a family that went back centuries. Through that they were able to verify that the person they were researching that’s buried in the cemetery was in fact a descendant of that family,” Okerlund said. “Their discovery of that book allowed Andrew White to reach out to a number of that as connect that living descendant with this project.”
Okerlund believes this project is teaching her students critical thinking skills.
“They have to be evaluating when they find things if this is accurate for what they already know about this individual. There are a lot of people with similar names, so they have to cross reference things and really be critical thinkers,” Okerlund said.
“In addition to trying to craft a biography about the individual they chose to research. They are also choosing open-ended essential questions about the time period in which that person lived,” Okerlund added.