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Pioneer Cemetery (South West Street) (Westnedge Park)

An Urban Oak Opening


Pioneer Cemetery (South West Street) (Westnedge Park)
Location: East side of South Westnedge between Ranney Street and Park Place.
Status: Inactive, converted to a park in 1884
pioneer-sign-240  pioneer-view-240

Photos: Beth Timmerman, 2010

Cemetery History

“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.’ ”
James Fenimore Cooper, 1848
Oak Openings

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

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.

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

South Westnedge Park, c. 1900
View of the park after the improvements were made in 1884/85. Probably taken sometime between then and 1900. Source: Kalamazoo Public Library Photograph P-421

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.

Pioneers Remembered

Pioneer Cemetery Historical MarkerIn 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

Cemetery records of Kalamazoo County, Michigan

Monteith, Ruth Robbins
Genealogical Association of Southwestern Michigan
1959
H 977.417 M77

Tombstone Inscriptions in Kalamazoo County, Michigan: A Bicentennial Project

Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society
1980 (partial list)
H 977.417 K145

Kalamazoo’s First Cemetery, 1833-1862

Brewer, Robert L.
Kalamazoo Valley Genealogical Society
1987
H 977.418 B847

The Oak Openings, or, The Bee-Hunter

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

Articles

“South West Street Cemetery of Kalamazoo”

Praus, Alexis A.
Michigan Heritage, volume 1, no. 2, Winter 1959, pages 33-43
Includes a list of identified burials; many include additional biographical information.
Copy available in History Room Subject File : Cemeteries

“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 Subject File: Court Scrapbook, volume 1, page 2

For a full list of articles, consult our Local Information Index.

Local History Room Files

History room vital records card file: available online at Kalamazoo Genealogy

From a record book of the D.A.R.

Websites

Kalamazoo County, Michigan Cemeteries on the Web

1882 burial transcription and possible transfers upon closure

Last updated 29 April 2014.

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