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Elmwood Cemetery: Hiram Walker's Final Resting Place

For many locals, the thought of roaming the streets of Detroit in search of historical sites is out of the realm of possibilities. However, for those who have a passion for places that provide connections between the Border Cities, Detroit offers a wealth of possibilities. This time, we explore the Historic Elmwood Cemetery, located in Detroit's near east side, directly across the river from Walkerville- and the final resting place of Hiram Walker, founder and patriarch of Walkerville.

elmwood2.jpgThe historic Elmwood Cemetery is located within easy reach of the  Windsor-Detroit tunnel, a two mile hop from the man-made forest of downtown Detroit buildings but few Walkervillians have taken the short journey to its majestic gates.

In January, the Art Gallery of Windsor sponsored an alternative tour of Detroit, to explore some of the city's rich heritage, including Elmwood. The attraction for me was the fact that Hiram Walker, founder of Walkerville, was buried here, but the bonus was the discovery of a hidden treasure trove close to home.

Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest continuous non-religious cemetery in Detroit. In the Spring of 1846, a number of Detroit residents conceived the idea of establishing a cemetery in the then suburbs of the city, and 42 acres were set aside. The landscape was modeled in the garden style after Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., and today covers 86 acres.

The history of Elmwood is fascinating, and is superbly chronicled in Michael S. Franck's "Elmwood Endures: History of Detroit Cemetery.  According to Franck: " The cemetery's archaic stone monuments are an artistic treasure. Detroit's pioneers and warriors now sleep along those peaceful banks- their names, etched in stone, have been given to parks, expressways, streets and buildings [in Detroit]."

The partially wooded, somewhat hilly expanse of land off east Lafayette Blvd. near Vernon and Mount Elliott is fascinating for its topography; the rolling grounds transport us back to an earlier era, similar to those first seen by Cadillac in 1701. Parent's Creek, which runs through the grounds, is famous for a battle fought on July 31, 1763 during the French and Indian War. Chief Pontiac's Natives defeated the British Regular Redcoats, under the command of Captain Dalzell. The battle was fought across Parent's Creek- thereafter dubbed "Bloody Run".

The entrance gatehouse off Monroe was erected in 1870 at a cost of $5,900; as you enter, you must pass through a stunning Victorian Archway made of quarried limestone in a late Victorian Gothic style. According to Franck, "(in the gatehouse's office) lie priceless records, a wealth of information for historians and genealogists interested in Detroit and Michigan history."

The first thing that struck me was the size of some of the monuments on the grounds- huge markers unseen on our side of the river dominate the landscape and every marker tells a story. Many of Detroit's well-heeled citizens are buried here commemorated by such lavish monuments as Senator Zachariah Chandler's forty foot high obelisk next to the Elmwood Chapel- the cemetery's tallest. Erected in 1880, the four-ton monument is supported by a fifteen foot concrete base.

The landscape is in fact not natural but the result of a careful garden design. More than sixteen hundred trees and shrubs, representing over seventy species are planted here, carefully chosen to bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall- a reminder of death as a natural process. A massive honey oak tree at the entrance is thought to be the oldest on site- bearing witness to the French and Indian Wars.

elmwood3.jpgElmwood's silent city contains more than 52,000 souls. Two hundred more are added annually. Some reflect the tragedy of Detroit's youth violence and senseless killings- while others are placed in their final resting spot by caring family members- including Coleman Young, probably Detroit's most flamboyant mayor.

Notes Franck: "On important holidays, including Memorial and Veteran's Day, and July 4, Elmwood comes alive with the sound of marching bands, commanders' calls and volleys from black-powder rifles. History repeats itself as members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Black Historical Sites Committee pay homage to the Civil War dead who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Each regiment stands in formation as the bugle echoes against a forest of stone. Taps stir the souls of all within hearing distance."

A Detroit tradition was to purchase entire lots, forming gardens of graves- as opposed to individual sites.  The Walker family purchased such a "garden" and family members are buried here, including Hiram, wife Mary and son Willis, of  Willistead Manor's name sake.

In 1872, Hiram Walker's wife of twenty-six years, Mary Abigail, aged 46, died of heart disease and was buried in Elmwood. The first church in Walkerville which was located on Riverside erected in her memory, as is St-Mary's, adjacent to Willistead Manor.

On January 12, 1899, Hiram Walker suffered a major seizure, fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. The news of his death was flashed across the continent; news and editorial columns in every important newspaper of the day carried eulogies of the man who made Canadian Club whisky the most famous brand on the planet.

elmwood1.jpgThe firm of Hiram Walker & Sons was closed; during the three days following his death, the body lay in state in the parlour of the Walker residence, at the corner of Shelby and Fort Street near the tunnel in Detroit. According to the Detroit News (January 15, 1899): "At the Elmwood Cemetery, a big canvas canopy had been stretched over the burial lot to protect the members of the family at the graveside; the internment was private. As yet there is no monument or costly tomb on the burial plot."

Today, Walker's plot at Elmwood contains a simple marker- a testimony to a man who possessed great riches but remained humble until the end. The family plot is easy to find, marked by a sarcophagus set by his sons, long after his death, on a hill in section A2, in the southwest corner of Elmwood.

next page: Hiram Walker Supported Industries


 

 

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