BY DAVE WOOD
‘The City of the Dead’
“It is with regret that we call the attention of the lot owners in the Whitehall Cemetery to the deplorable conditions of the ‘City of the Dead.’ It would be well for those in charge to look after the dilapidated condition of the enclosure of the premises and to inaugurate a move looking toward cleaning up, improving and beautifying the grounds generally.
–The Whitehall Times, May 6, 1897 Back to the present: This past week was Memorial Day and I’ve been thinking of Memorial Days past when I marched with the high school band up to Lincoln Cemetery where we were told to be careful not to step on graves, which I dared not do, because the band lined up adjacent to my mother’s grave hard by the dais where speeches were made and the American Legion shot volleys and little kids dove for empty cartridges.
It’s funny what one can derive from reading reprinted news items from 125 years ago. The one printed above jumped out at me when I read it last month in my hometown paper because my wife Ruth and I have just laid claim to the last two lots in the Wood holdings of that ancient burial place, which I have haunted over the years while writing about the history of our town.
I well recall when my father told me that the town mayor asked him whether there was something wrong with me. My father replied, “Lots of things. What this time?” And Lester Brennom the mayor, who lived next to Lincoln Cemetery, replied, “Well, I take a peek at the cemetery almost every day, and for the last three days, I’ve seen Dave up there sitting on a tombstone.”
My father explained that I was probably up there learning birth and death dates of tombstones for relatives who are interested in long gone relatives who might have been buried in “The City of the Dead,” as editor Dan Camp named it back in 1897.
Dad was correct and so were the ancestors’ folks for whom I was researching. Those tombstones tell lots of stories. I found that out when I discovered a plot of 60 or 70 stones which remembered the diphtheria epidemic of 1877 which killed half the young children in town, including my great aunt Kippy, great aunt Alta and their cousin and baby sitter Jane in one week.
Also, during my adventures in that beautiful old cemetery, I discovered other matters that were discouraging. After World War II was over, many who died in that conflict were sent home to be buried in Lincoln Cemetery and several parents purchased elaborate gravestones that included photos of their dead children, usually in uniform. One such was Lt. Archie Langworthy, my father’s best friend, who was killed in the Pacific as an Air Corps photographer. His grave was near my mother’s, so I always went over and looked at it, finally to discover that some thoughtless hoodlum had shot Archie in the face with a BB gun. As well as with several other veterans who had given their all.
I’m not the only one interested in cemeteries. Recently, I received a letter from one Sean Parsons, a public relations exec in Walla Walla, Washington, home of the famous onion. Turns out that Sean is interested in genealogy and is the great grandson of one Dewey Parsons, who was the brother-in-law of my great grandfather David Wood. Last spring Sean traveled for the first time to Wis consin and I showed him my great grandad’s farms and those of Deweys. I introduced him to Lincoln Cemetery, built upon land donated by Dewey, who became an executive of the undertaking along with Great Grandpa Dave.
So back to the recently published “Memories of.” I guess it was Sean’s and my ancestors who let the place go to rack and ruin by 1897. I was saddened to think I had to send the clipping to Sean. But then I read on further to discover all the building that was going on in 1897, including the construction of David Wood’s new grain elevator and his 70-foot-long hay baling operation near the new railroad tracks. I’m pretty certain that Dewey Parsons was alongside Dave to help and thus forgot to maintain the City of the Dead—in order to create a City of the Future. Sean and I can’t make it back to Whitehall this Memorial Day, but I’ll be at the beautiful monument to the war dead in River Falls, where there’s a memorial tile for David (who served in the Civil War with his brother- in-law Dewey) and David’s son Jim (the Spanish American War veteran to come from Whitehall), lest we forget.
Dave would like to hear from you. Call him at 715-426-9554.