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Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

Hallowed Ground Destined for Forest Home Cemetery

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For many, the only view of Forest Home Cemetery has been through a veil of tears as a loved one is laid to rest. The cemetery’s historic significance and the crosses, columns, obelisks and mausoleums that mark the graves of Milwaukee’s most notable residents are lost in a parade of funeral mourners. As the cemetery’s native trees begin to drop their broad leaves in the coolness of autumn, the season is right for a walk through one of Milwaukee’s most historic addresses.

Within a 1-mile radius of what is now the intersection of Lincoln and Forest Home avenues, local Indian tribes built more than 60 effigy mounds, a small percentage of the thousands of effigy mounds created in Wisconsin. According to John Gurda, author of Cream City Chronicles, most were simple cones, but the mounds included a 250-foot long panther effigy. Beginning in the 1830s, settlers began to level the mounds and dig up the corn that had been planted around them. In 1848, work began on Janesville Plank Road, what would become a virtual highway to towns southwest of the city.

Disturbed by the practice of displacing the bones of Milwaukee’s early pioneers in the name of city development, the parishioners of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the Yankee Hill neighborhood acquired 73 wooded acres on the new Janesville Plank Road to establish a cemetery for the city. They named it Forest Home, and in 1850 the first burial took place. Soon after, it became the most popular destination for Milwaukee’s departed, including its founding fathers, pioneering women, industry leaders, military heroes, politicians and beer barons. In 1872, Janesville Plank Road was renamed to reflect the most prominent terminus on the well-worn route, Forest Home.

In the late 1800s, the cemetery’s fulltime staff maintained ponds, fountains, dozens of lavish flower beds, a Gothic brownstone chapel and 17 miles of winding footpaths and carriage ways. The setting was so picturesque and serene that city-dwellers took the streetcar to Forest Home Cemetery to escape the grime and congestion of the city. As Milwaukee developed its stellar park system, fewer people visited the cemetery recreationally, but still plenty visited permanently. Today, Forest Home Cemetery remains unchanged as a nonprofit organization held in the public trust. It is comprised of 200 acres, with more undeveloped land than the total area of most cemeteries in the United States.

Throughout human history and in many cultures, remembering the dead is a meaningful ritual for the living. While it can be seen as a park, statuary or local museum, Forest Home Cemetery is ultimately a dignified resting place for a loved one’s mortal remains and a symbol for those of us left behind.

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