Places of Repose: Early Cemeteries of Wichita

By Eric Cale

Reprinted with permission from Sagacity Magazine, Volume 3, Number 2 - Spring 1998

Walking amongst the cedar trees and monuments of Highland, Calvary and Maple Grove, it is not difficult to understand how the sites of Wichita’s earliest cemeteries were chosen. They offer what are surely the most romantic and spectacular vistas in Wichita. At Calvary and Highland cemeteries these views west toward the river valley must have been especially breathtaking during the early years of white settlement. It is likely that, one bright June day in 1863, James R. Mead first laid eyes on the river valley at the very place that within a decade would become Highland Cemetery. He recounted the impression his memoir: Here a vision of beauty and interest greeted our eyes, such perhaps as no other spot on the plains could furnish. A level valley spread out before us as far as the eye could reach. The fresh green grass, cropped close by the buffalo and bordered by belts of timber resembled a well-kept park. Through this valley wound the great and little Arkansas Rivers, their banks fringed with stately trees. Scattered about over this landscape were groups of buffalo, fit and sleek, their bodies covered with a new coat of fur., black as jet. Some were grazing and others were lying down in the warm sun, or standing motionless as if asleep. This was their country and their home and in all the broad valley there was no human being to disturb them. Such beautiful hilltop environs, physically closer to heaven, constituted a typical choice for the location of a cemetery in mid-nineteenth century America. There must have been some comfort in looking toward the bluffs east of town and knowing it was the place where family and friends rested.

Until the dawn of the nineteenth century, America, like Europe, depended upon the unseemly churchyard and the even more derelict potter’s field for disposition of the dead. The grave sites in urban burial grounds were ghastly and crowded. As time progressed, these grounds became unhealthy and were considered a primary source of disease. For all but the highest strata of society, a grave was of limited tenure and seldom marked. The old burying grounds were not tended in any way outside of what was necessary to continue their essential function.
Taking the lead from Europeans, Americans began developing the rural garden cemetery, designed on more genteel principles. With the Enlightenment, Western culture turned to ancient classical times for inspiration. The very word cemetery is Latin for place of repose or sleeping room. By the 1830's, Americans began to redefine their funerary and burial customs to suit budding middle-class affluence and popular Victorian virtues. A sentimental and respectable means of disposition and permanent memorialization of a deceased family member was a new luxury and one the public took to quickly. The rural garden cemetery, with its intentionally planned beauty, became immensely popular by mid-century. By this time older cities had adopted the concept and new towns began with rural garden cemeteries. Permanent memorials quickly became available to the common person, where a century before they would have been unheard of.

A wide range of memorial imagery was used, bringing a whole vocabulary for the symbolism of the flora and, to a lesser extent, the fauna. The oak leaf, acorn and ivy represent strength, the olive branch - peace, the laurel - achievement, the rose - love, the primrose - melancholy, the lily - eternal life, the harvested wheat - mortal life harvested by the Maker. Doves represent faith, doves and sometimes larks - the flight of a child’s soul to heaven, dogs - fidelity, and the lamb - innocence and Christ the Savior. Catholics favored the cross while Protestants favored the open Bible. Widely used, angels can be found assisting in the transition to eternity, having evolved from winged skulls used since the Middle Ages. Fine examples of heraldic, fraternal and military symbolism also exist. Special meaning is found in the use of flowers, shrubs and trees in cemetery landscaping. In a general sense, evergreens, especially cedars, represent eternal life, while deciduous trees and perennial flowers symbolize life renewed. In smaller communities, memorial art and inscription were often the primary public source of art and literature.

In addition to the new cemeteries, another industry arose, that of undertaker. Funeral parlors were a common fixture in frontier towns as well as in cities. Commonly, the undertaker would provide the paying party with a coffin for the deceased, often delivered to the home, along with optional merchandise and services such as use of a hearse and coaches for the trip to the cemetery. In many small communities, the undertaker moonlighted or combined his business with another, often a furniture store. Modern embalming was developed during the Civil War, 1861-1865, for the sake of returning war dead to their families. This service, offered by many undertakers in the late nineteenth century, was frequently performed in the home. Until the 1930's, in most cases, the casket laid in state at the residence of the deceased, and the funeral was held in the home. By the dawn of the twentieth century, most undertakers had assumed the new, and more scientific, title of mortician.

As Sedgwick County became populated during the 1870's and 1880's, many small burying grounds were set aside. Today the county contains about fifty known cemeteries, most of which were started by townships, churches, or families on nearby farms. The earliest Sedgwick County cemetery on record is Highland Cemetery, located west of north Hillside, between 9th and 11th streets. The first burial was that of Albert Lewellen, age 5, in 1870, the same year the small frontier town of Wichita was incorporated.

An article from an 1887 edition of the Sunday Growler, an early Wichita newspaper, stated that the cemetery had been put there contrary to the wish of its present owner, for I have heard him say there were fifteen graves there when he took the ground as a government claim, and every additional grave for some time was made under his protest and with the promise from the city to remove them later to a site to be selected by the city. Failing this, the owner finally platted it and it became known as the City Cemetery. The owner referred to in the article was a farmer named Peter Smith, who formally platted the lots of twelve graves each, laying out the grounds in a plain symmetrical grid, and establishing the Wichita Cemetery Company in 1872.

In 1899, Smith sold the property, by then known as Highland Cemetery, to a public-minded group of local investors. The investor group, Principals of Maple Grove, ultimately handed Highland over to a lot owners association in 1908 under allegations that it was illegal to operate the cemetery for financial gain, of which there had been little, if any. The association struggled to maintain the 30-acre cemetery until giving up in 1983, when their maintenance contractor quit and the last available spaces were sold. During 1997, only six interments took place at Highland. Today the City of Wichita provides for the maintenance of this historic site. Of the approximately 17,000 people buried at Highland Cemetery, perhaps the most nationally recognized would be Buffalo Bill Mathewson, the original Buffalo Bill, and Sidney Toler, the motion picture actor who starred as Charlie Chan.

Annexed to, but not actually a part of, Highland are the Wichita Mausoleum and the Temple Emanu-El Cemetery. The Wichita Mausoleum, built in 1919, at the southwest corner of 9th Street and Hillside, was constructed and sold by an outside company as a joint venture with the Highland Cemetery Association, and is maintained today through its own perpetual care trust. The Temple Emanu-El Cemetery, bordering 9th Street, was established by Wichita’s early Jewish community in 1885. Memorials at Temple Emanu-El Cemetery are austere, largely in keeping with the Second Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Wichita’s first Jewish cemetery is exquisitely cared for today, as it always has been.

Calvary Cemetery, Wichita’s oldest Catholic Cemetery, is also perhaps the city’s most visible cemetery, with its site along Highway 54/Kellogg and Vassar Street. The view west toward town, unobstructed even today, is spectacular. Calvary Cemetery was consecrated in 1882, five years prior to the establishment of the diocese, and is the final resting place for an estimated 10,000 Catholic faithful. According to cemetery records, the first official interment was made in 1876. Popular legend has it that pioneer graves from the year 1859 also exist at the site, though no records exist as proof. Today, with only 100 spaces available and an average of 25 interments annually, it is anticipated that Calvary Cemetery will fall from active use withing the next quarter century.

Maple Grove Cemetery, located on the northeast corner of Hillside and 9th Street, is Wichita’s largest cemetery. It stretches east nearly to MacDonald Municipal Golf Course and contains more than 25,000 burial sites on 40 of its 60 acres. While it cannot boast of the river valley view of other local cemeteries, Maple Grove does contain some of the most varied and wooded terrain in the county, as well as a meandering creek. The cemetery is famous as a nature reserve and unofficial arboretum, attracting area bird watchers. Established in 1988 by Albert Alexander (A.A.) Hyde and others, Maple Grove was hailed as the finest cemetery between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. The services of landscape architect Albert Ellis were secured by Hyde for the purpose of laying out the new necropolis. Ellis, from New Hampshire arrived with recommendations from none other than Mark Twain, and later went on to lay out many of the city’s most beautiful parks as well as the grounds of Fairmount University.

In 1887, when plans for Maple Grove were proposed, some townspeople complained that is seemed frivolous and unnecessary to consider a new cemetery across the street from Highland, an established cemetery. As soon as the ground was laid out, however, many of those with family members interred at Highland immediately contracted to have the grave sites moved to Maple Grove. Records also indicate that some rural families relocated grave sites on farms to the new cemetery. In a time when cemeteries commanded great consideration, it is not difficult to imagine the attraction of Maple Grove over that of Highland. Ellis’s plan transformed what was formerly David Fox’s sheep pasture into a formal and naturalistic Victorian garden cemetery. Wide curving avenues corresponding to the natural lay of the land and waterways set the stage for the planting of trees. This endeavor occupied to Hyde family for nearly a decade. The Hyde children spent entire summers hauling buckets of water from the creek to the newly planted trees, establishing what is today a major urban forest.

The fact that a variety of cemetery lots in Maple Grove were laid out in an asymmetrical fashion augmented the natural landscape and offered a departure from the old “marble row” appearance found at the other cemeteries. The original plan called for each lot to contain no more than one upright monument, while marking individual grave sites with a single tablet at lawn level, which in those days could reach a height of nearly two feet before being considered scandalous. The idea of memorial regulations was also a departure form the old style of cemetery management in which there were no rules. Lots in the other cemeteries were often enclosed by a fence or curb, making routine maintenance extremely difficult if not impossible.

[photo]The scarcity of marble memorials is noticeable at Maple Grove compared with other local cemeteries. By the time Maple Grove Cemetery was planned, technology sufficient to carve much harder and more durable granite had been developed. The inverted torch, the draped urn, the broken column, each a symbol mourning life’s end, were much more difficult to carve three dimensionally in granite. New technology ultimately saw the demise of most ornate memorial imagery favored during the Victorian era. Nonetheless, noble attempts were made to carve granite with the same detail as chiseled marble. Maple Grove abounds with memorial art inspired by the classical revival. Some, such as James R. Mead, favored the exotic in memorial art. Mead chose from timeless and eternal Egyptian designs for his family’s mausoleum. Other citizens relied upon the more common Romanesque designs such as floral garlands and festoons. Greek temples peak out many intentionally half-carved monuments, conveying the idea that even more might have been possible had death not cut short life’s accomplishments. These stone statements allowed one to be remembered and to speak to those left behind and those yet to come.
The role of the cemetery changes along with popular thought. It has been refreshing to see a revival of public interest in our most historic cemeteries, for it is indicative of an expanding appreciation of our local history. Our cemeteries are the most permanent of institutions; however, they are vulnerable to the ravages of time and neglect. If preserved, they can serve us far beyond their most essential purpose. Cemeteries are an invaluable link to our past and to our very essence.

Eric Cale, a fifth generation Wichitan, has his BFA from Wichita State University. Mr. Cale served as the General Manager of Maple Grove Cemetery from 1989-2004.

Maple Grove attained non-profit status in the early 1960's and is operated by the same organization under which it was originally founded. The cemetery organization sees itself not only as providing an important community service, but also as a unique cultural and historical resource, fully committed to an active role in fostering public interest in history and preservation.

[Maple Grove Cemetery]
1000 N. Hillside • Wichita, Kansas 67214
(316) 682-4821

e-mail: info@maplegrovecemetery.org