South Westnedge Park: Pioneer Cemetery and Urban Oak Opening

South Westnedge Park, c. 1900

View of the park after the improvements were made in 1884/85. Probably taken sometime between then and 1900.

"The region was, in one sense, wild, though it offered a picture that was not without some of the strongest and most pleasing features of civilization. ... Although wooded, it was not as the American forest is wont to grow, with tall, straight trees towering towards the light, but with intervals between the low oaks that were scattered profusely over the view, and with much of that air of negligence that one is apt to see in grounds where art is made to assume the character of nature.  The trees, with very few exceptions, were what is called the 'burr-oak,' a small variety of a very extensive genus; and the spaces between them, always irregular, and often of singular beauty, have obtained the name of 'openings'; the two terms combined giving their appellation to this particular species of native forest, under the name of 'Oak Openings.' " 

 

It may come as a surprise to the modern reader that the natural beauty of at least one of Kalamazoo's "oak openings" as described by James Fenimore Cooper has survived to the present day. It is so well integrated into our city's landscape that most Kalamazoo citizens probably pass it without a second thought. The area in question is currently known as South Westnedge Park, and in addition to being a beautiful example of an oak opening, it is also the location of Kalamazoo's first cemetery.

Tree Map, South Westnedge Park

Map of the oak trees in South Westnedge Park. Used with permission.

Kalamazoo’s First Cemetery

Kalamazoo's original cemetery was first named West Street Cemetery, but was also called South West Cemetery and in more recent years has been referred to as the Pioneer Cemetery. The three acre parcel was originally donated by Cyren and Mary Ann Burdick in 1832. From that time until the opening of Riverside Cemetery in 1862 South West Cemetery was the only public burial ground in Kalamazoo. As such, many of the city's earliest pioneers and citizens were buried there.

The first person buried in the new cemetery was Joseph Wood, a member of the family that gave Woods Lake its name. The names and exact numbers of people buried there will probably never be known. However, a thorough study conducted in 1987 has shed some light on the subject. The study concluded that between 325 and 500 people were buried in South West Cemetery at one time or another. In addition, it identified the names of 270 people who are likely still buried there. Many of the familiar names of Kalamazoo's founding families grace the list:  Axtells, Shakespeares, Sutherlands, Burdicks and den Bleykers all rest there. The cemetery was probably near its capacity when the Kalamazoo Board of Health ordered it closed in 1862. Some of the bodies were moved to the privately owned Mountain Home, others to the newly opened public Riverside, but many remain where they were originally placed. Probably the last person to be interred there was Rev. H. G. Klyn, who was the second pastor of First Reformed Church. He was buried beside his wife the year after the cemetery closed.

Conversion to a Park

The cemetery apparently was not well maintained for twenty years or so after its closure. After a public petition in 1884, the city decided to convert it to a park. It was graded, seeded, the trees trimmed, the decayed grave markers sunk beneath the soil, and a record made of the location of the graves. Later walkways and benches were added, and the park was used for political rallies and social occasions. These developments shocked the Burdicks’ son R. Carlyle Burdick, when he visited from his home in Minneapolis. He filed suit against the city in Circuit Court in 1895, requesting that possession of the land be returned to his family, or that they be compensated for its value, then estimated at $12,000. The court held that since bodies were still buried there, it was still being used for its intended purpose, however distasteful some of the surface activities might be to some people. The city retains title to the land, and it has remained a park ever since.

Pioneer Cemetery Historical Marker

 

Pioneers Remembered

In 1960, Alexis Praus, then director of the Kalamazoo Public Museum, wrote a history of the park and remarked, “It does not seem proper that founders of Kalamazoo should lie in unmarked graves, unrecognized for their contributions that made Kalamazoo the city it is today. A marker, telling the history of the site…should be erected….” Subsequently, a state historic marker was placed at the southwest corner of the park, where it stands today.

Sources

Books

Kalamazoo's First Cemetery 1833-1862 

  • Brewer, Robert L.
  • Comstock, MI: Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society, 1987
  • H 977.418 B847

The Oak Openings, or, The Bee-Hunter 

  • Cooper, James Fenimore
  • Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2003

Articles

"The South West Street Cemetery"

  • Praus, Alexis A.
  • Michigan  Heritage, Volume 1, number 2, Winter 1959, pages 33-43

"Some incidents in Kalamazoo's history: Burdick's gift of a cemetery to the city and how his heir tried to recover it"

  • Undated clipping, probably from the Kalamazoo Gazette
  • History Room Subect File: Courts Scrapbook, volume 1, page 2
  • For a full list of articles, consult our Local Information Index

Deeds

Cyren Burdick to Supervisor of Arcadia

  • Kalamazoo County Deeds, liber B, page 5 (Microfilm)

Website

Kalamazoo County Cemeteries on the Web