West Douglas/Fairmont Neighborhood

Mountain Home Cemetery: A link to Kalamazoo’s history and the many people who made it what it is

Editor’s Note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground West Douglas/Fairmont Neighborhood series.

Eyes are easily drawn to the familiar names at Mountain Home Cemetery.

The 171-year-old burial grounds, established in the rolling landscape just west of downtown Kalamazoo, is the final resting place of some of the most recognizable names in the history of Greater Kalamazoo.

They include Burdick, Fetzer, Stockbridge, Stuart, Drake, Henderson, Ransom, Milham, Kleinstuck, Gilmore, and Upjohn.
“When you look at a lot of the families in here, they are going to be the names that we see attached to a lot of businesses, the names that we see attached to streets, the names we see attached to political life and artistic life,” explains local historian Lynn Smith Houghton. 

But they are not all who are buried here, she says.

Local historian Lynn Smith Houghton embraces the idea that everyone buried at the 22.6-acre cemetery was a part of the community and should be acknowledged for helping to make Kalamazoo what it is today. Photo by Al JonesShe embraces the idea that everyone buried at the 22.6-acre cemetery was a part of the community and should be acknowledged for helping to make Kalamazoo what it is today.

“When I lead a tour of the cemetery, I will talk about the (notable) people who are buried here. But I may not emphasize it as much as others,” says Houghton, who is regional history curator for the Zhang Legacy Collection Center at Western Michigan University. “What I like to look at is what I refer to as the architecture of the cemetery.”

Tombstones can tell stories

During a recent walk around Mountain Home Cemetery, she pointed out the interesting architecture of two 19th century buildings still there. And talked about the many different styles of tombstones. Grave markers’ styles range from gothic revival to tree stump replicas, and they are made of many materials, from granite, marble, and limestone to what was called white bronze.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, tombstones were fashioned in many different styles, including ones like this one, which was called white bronze. It was actually it’s made our of zinc carbonate.“It was called white bronze,” Houghton says, “but actually it’s made out of zinc carbonate. I think they thought ‘white bronze’ was a little classier — to say that. They come in very different shapes and sizes. You got to choose through a catalog to order what you wanted. And if you look at them, you can see there are various panels where they have different symbols.”

She pointed to one with a sculpted cross. It was overlaid with carvings of flowers and a crown. It also had a sheath of wheat and, at the top, an urn. In ancient times, graveyard urns contained ashes, Houghton says. In more modern times, they were used to symbolize mourning.

While tombstones can tell stories, some gravesites remain a mystery. Such is the case with the size of the obelisk for J.J. Perrin. Joel J. Perrin (1826-1900) owned a hardware store and had ownership interests in a lot of property in downtown Kalamazoo, Houghton says.

 “When he died, they actually put in the newspaper -- I think it was a couple of years later -- how they were bringing this up,” she says, referring to a towering, approximately 30-foot tall, Washington Monument-like obelisk that calls attention to his gravesite. Motioning to the landmark during a visit to the property, she says, “I don’t know how many horses it took them to bring this monument up in his memory.”

With a chuckle, she also says, “The thing I’m trying to figure out is where is Mrs. Perrin?” The site lacks a gravestone bearing her name. And Houghton says, “It is in the newspaper that Mrs. Perrin was not happy with what she was left.”

History on the hill

Mountain Home Cemetery is a familiar sight as motorists drive west from downtown Kalamazoo and climb West Main Hill. It is a winding but primarily square patch of earth in the West Douglas Neighborhood, bordered on the north and south by Forbes and West Main streets and on the east and west by Ingleside Terrace and Hilbert Street.

Mountain Home Cemetery is a familiar sight as motorists head west from downtown Kalamazoo on West Main Street. It is a hilly but primarily square cemetery located between West Main and Forbes Street in the West Douglas Neighborhood.The cemetery was organized in 1849, about 18 years after the city of Kalamazoo was founded, on land whose dips and turns would have made farming difficult. Houghton says the first burials were probably done in 1850. 

“It was called either a rural or garden cemetery,” she explains. Rather than a flat-land burial spot, she says, “The roads were supposed to follow the contour of the land. This was a style that started in places out east like Massachusetts and New England and those type of places.”

The design supported the idea that families would visit and spend time at the gravesites of their loved ones. The design was most likely adopted because of the hilly nature of the West Douglas Neighborhood and because many of the people who came to Kalamazoo were from the east, where the design was popular.

Contrasting styles and tastes

Originally a private cemetery, anyone who wanted to buy a burial plot had to first join an association, says Houghton. That gave the property an air of exclusivity. Among the original trustees of the association were Isaac Moffat, Luther H. Trask, Nathaniel A. Balch; and Epaphroditus Ransom, a Kalamazoo resident who served as governor of Michigan from 1848-1850.

The dramatic differences in the design and size of family tombstones and obelisks reflect the style and tastes of the people involved, Houghton says. But those things are not necessarily an insight into the fame, fortune, or ego of those involved, she says.

The size and style of the tombstones and markers at Mountain Home Cemetery cover a wide variety of tastes and styles. “The size (of the family tombstone marker) might relate to the amount of money they wanted to spend,” Houghton says. “It doesn’t indicate, ‘Boy, this must have been the mayor of the area or whatever.’ It’s hard to really say. So much of this is what they really wanted to do. We’ve got large ones, small ones, simple ones.”

Approximately 7,328 people are buried in the cemetery and there are about 600 gravesites still available, according to the City of Kalamazoo, which is responsible for the perpetual care of the gravesites. That does not include Jewish Mountain Home Cemetery, which is the southwestern corner of the overall cemetery (the part closest to the top of West Main Hill). It is 1.8 acres of land that was purchased by Temple B’Nai Israel not long after that congregation was established in Kalamazoo in the late 1860s. Jewish Mountain Home Cemetery is the resting place of various prominent members of Kalamazoo’s Jewish community and members of Temple B’Nai Israel.

Riverside Cemetery, off the northeast corner of Riverview Drive and Gull Road, was always and continues to be a public cemetery. A section of it was established many years ago as a burial grounds for members of Kalamazoo’s other large Jewish congregation, the Congregation of Moses.
This boulder-sized orb marks the family burial plot of the Oscar Allen family. He was owner of the Globe Casket Manufacturing Co.

Some sites make an impression

“The globe, to me, has significance,” Houghton says, pointing to a boulder-sized orb on a plot of land near the eastern edge of the cemetery. It is the family burial place of the Allen family.

Oscar M. Allen Sr., the patriarch of the family, started the Globe Casket Manufacturing Co. in Kalamazoo in 1865 and one of his sons started Globe Construction Co., which is still in business today, in 1912.

“So you talk about making a statement?” Houghton says of the giant ball. “You’ve made a statement here.”

Two buildings from the late 1800s are found on the property. A sexton’s lodge, which was once the home for the cemetery’s caretaker, was built in 1892 in a Richardsonian Romanesque style, Houghton says. She says she doesn't know when it ceased to be used as the caretaker’s home or when it was no longer regularly used.

Well-known businessman Bill Wright is among those who have been interred at Mountain Home Cemetery in more recent times. He gravesite is just west of the sexton’s lodge.Until 1950, it also served as a flower shop, according to information provided by the Kalamazoo Public Library. The shop was operated by the sexton, who also managed several greenhouses there. And during more modern times the structure was headquarters for a short time for the Fairmont/West Douglas Neighborhood Association.

City officials are studying the lodge to see if it can be put to alternative uses. They are also considering what will happen with a gothic-style building that has served as a receiving vault, to hold bodies temporarily until burial. It was built in 1878. Neither structure is to be demolished.

Improvements are being made

Asked what is the greatest challenge facing the cemetery, Wendy Burlingham, administrative support manager for the Kalamazoo Public Services, says. “Funding and ongoing maintenance are always concerns.” But she says, “This is such a beautiful cemetery with so much history, we want to preserve it for as long as we can.”

The terrain is picturesque but presents some problems with maintenance. And vandals have, over the years, overturned some older gravestones.

A grant from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation is expected to help cover costs to repair roadways and storm infrastructure inside the cemetery as well as forestry work and structures that have deteriorated.Funding is being provided by the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation to improve water drainage from the area and to do such things as rebuild stone walls and structures that have deteriorated or been damaged over the years. A $687,820 grant from the foundation is expected to help cover costs to repair roadways and storm infrastructure inside the cemetery as well as perform forestry work and restore structures such as retaining walls, stairways, and catch basins.

The city is preparing to solicit bids for some of the renovation work but hopes to have all of the work completed by the end of 2022.

Some things Houghton finds fascinating:

A stone carving of a small animal, such as the lamb below and to the right in this photo of the Cortenius family plot, were sometimes included near the gravesites of children, supposedly to watch over them. • Large-scale sicknesses are certainly not new -- That was borne out during the family life of Frederick Curtenius (1806-1883) and displayed on the tombstones of his young children. The local businessman had served as a colonel in the Michigan infantry during the Civil War, served twice in the Michigan Legislature, and was once president of the Kalamazoo Village Council. Curtenius and his second wife Kate had eight children. But only three of them lived to adulthood. “What we see here is unfortunately there were a number who died young,” Houghton says. “In fact, in 1877, one died. But in 1881 within a month (Jan. 6 to Jan. 30), four of their children died. They ranged in age from 3 to 9.” Houghton says diphtheria is the likely cause.

• Keeping track of the family -- Anywhere a member of his family was buried, businessman John Fetzer was known to make sure their headstone showed the genealogy of the family going back many years. At Mountain Home Cemetery, his family is traced back to the 16th century. “I think he really wanted to make a statement about their history and their background,” Houghton says. “And so it (the family marker) goes into very great detail about who is related to whom. It goes back over 10 generations.” Fetzer (1901-1991) was a well-known radio and television station executive who also owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team from 1961 to 1983.

Anywhere a member of his family was buried, businessman John Fetzer made a point of including a headstone that showed the genealogy of his family going back to the 16th century.• The struggles of women over the years -- Houghton says a small indication is the gravestone of Helen Upjohn Kirkland (1839-1901). She was the eldest child of Dr. W.E. Upjohn, founder of the global pharmaceutical company that is now a part of Pfizer Inc. She was sent to Ann Arbor to take care of younger family members as others attended the University of Michigan. But she studied and became a medical doctor and practiced medicine for years. Her status as a physician is not recognized on her tombstone, however. And Houghton says, “I’ve never known why they didn’t put M.D. after her name.” There were two other female family members who graduated from pharmacy school. While that would be difficult to show on a tombstone, Houghton says, “With Helen Upjohn Kirkland, I wish there would have been an M.D. after her name.”

• Burial plots that recognize the connection between two or more families  -- “You saw that a lot with family (burial) stones,” Houghton says. “They would have the names of all of the family that are in there.” An example is the burial plot of Frank and Mary (Taylor) Henderson. He owned a company that made horse saddles, but later made uniforms and regalia.

Mary Taylor became the owner of the farmland her family had on the south side of West Main Street. That is land that Frank developed into the Henderson Park Neighborhood.

“And so here,” Houghton says of the combined family burial plot at Mountain Home Cemetery, “we’ve got Frank and his wife, at least one daughter, a son, and some in-laws. Mary Taylor’s parents are also here as well as other members of the Taylor family.”

The dramatic differences in the style and size of family tombstones and obelisks should not be taken to necessarily reflect the fame, fortune or ego of those involved, a local historian says.Just across Main Street from the cemetery, the former farmland includes the mansion built by Henderson, now called Henderson Castle.

Mountain Home Cemetery is a picturesque piece of greenspace that is often walked by residents of the surrounding West Douglas Neighborhood. And it is a beautiful piece of the community’s history. 

Houghton says Mountain Home is like other cemeteries in our area but it is unique in terms of its design and some of the people interred there. Its gravesites are a physical, visible, ongoing reminder of the many people who have lived in Kalamazoo since its inception.

The size and style of the tombstones and markers at Mountain Home Cemetery cover a wide variety of tastes and styles. “It proves to me that they actually existed,” she says, “and that they were not just words in a newspaper somewhere.”

Their legacy is not to be ignored or defaced or destroyed but to be appreciated and acknowledge, she says.

“What strikes me about cemeteries, any cemeteries be they big or small, city or township, rural or urban, is that they play a role in telling the story of a community,” Houghton says. “They are, at times, referred to as silent cities which is so accurate as they hold generations of people who lived, worked, played, worshipped, and contributed to the uniqueness of where we live.”

All photos by West Douglas resident Wiliam Dolak unless otherwise indicated.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.