Cemetery tour highlights 150 years of Chase history

CHASE — With Lake County celebrating its sesquicentennial, the Chase Township Cemetery also turned 150 years old this year. Sid Woods, sexton and caretaker, took a group on a tour of the cemetery on Sept. 28, highlighting the graves of the people who shaped the local past, from its beginning.

The county's history began in Chase Township, with the first settlement, and also holding the first seat of government when Lake County was organized on March 18, 1871. Woods pointed out the oldest grave in the cemetery, that of 5-year-old Betsy Calkins, who died in 1871.

The 10-acre cemetery followed the original route for U.S. 10, where Hawkins Road jogs a mile north from U.S. 10, and continues east on 64th Street, formerly called Old U.S. 10. The cemetery also is referred to as the Chase Baptist Cemetery, because the old Chase Baptist Church was built across the road.

Woods pointed to the northwest corner of the cemetery, where the grounds are hilly, differing from the rest of the cemetery which is fairly level.

"Some claim there are mounds on this corner," Woods said, pointing to some humps in the land. "The Millers, who lived near here for 100-some years, talked of mounds being here. Maybe this is why it was picked for a cemetery. The cemetery originally started out as three acres, and was bought from the Samis family."

The cemetery currently has close to 1600 burials, Woods said, who has been sexton for the past 14 years, but has taken care of the grounds for nearly 41 years.

Woods pointed out some of the graves of the 40-some Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery, saying the township was largely settled by Civil War veterans who were awarded land-grants for their service.

Jesse Ackerman, one of the earliest settlers, came in 1863, after he already served in the war, Woods said. Another settler, Erastus Haines, was a native of New York, where he served. When he returned from the war, after being imprisoned, he found his wife remarried, thinking he was dead.

"Erastus Haines felt he had no reason to stay in New York, so he came to Michigan and took up land in Pinora Township," Woods said. "He was commissioner of the highways in the 1860s, and helped many settle in the area. He never remarried."

Woods pointed out the grave of another Civil War veteran, Robert Bigbee, of Ohio, who was the first county treasurer, and owned section 4, where much of the town of Chase now sits. Woods also showed the group the burial place of David Lathrop, who served as first county clerk.

The tour group came upon the tallest stone in the cemetery, marking the grave of past state representative, George Oviatt, a Civil War veteran who homesteaded where the Lake County Infirmary, also called the "Poor Farm," later was in operation. Oviatt also was Lake County Sheriff in the 1870s, and owned the Chase Eclipse, before his untimely death in 1886.

"Goerge Oviatt was said to have had one of the largest funerals in the county's history," Woods added.

In contrast to Oviatt having the largest stone, former inmates of the Lake County Infirmary, for years, had no markers to carry their memory, not even in cemetery records, where they were written down as just "one adult," or "one child."

There are about 80 poor farm burials in the public section (Potter's Field) of the cemetery, Woods said. Diligent research in recent years by members of the Chase Library history group uncovered death records which told the names of these burials. Woods pointed to a large wooden cross, made by Orville Mund in 2010, dedicated to the inmates who were buried so forgotten. A few markers have been put up in the past year to honor the Civil War veterans who were buried in the poor farm section.

Woods also pointed out the grave of William King, who died during the Philippine Insurrection, not from battle, but from fever. He also showed the group the grave of Charlie Johnson, Chase resident who was a Spanish American War veteran. Johnson was an early druggist in Chase and owned a meat market, repurposed old buildings and owned the Night Out Rollerrink near Idlewild, and the restaurant "The Grizzled Chicken."

Woods stood quietly near the grave of his uncle, Harold Spears.

"Harold was a sniper who was killed in action in World War II in West Germany. He was the first soldier in the county brought back after the war for burial in 1947," he explained.

The cemetery also tells a sad history for others whose lives were cut short.

At Grace Witt's grave, discussion was brought up about her murder in the winter of 1933, when she was keeping store at Olivers, a farming community between Chase and Reed City. An escapee from the Baldwin Jail was convicted and sentenced to life in Jackson, only 70 hours after her death, according to the Osceola County Herald issue from Feb. 23, 1933.

Three small stones lined up side by side on a small hill in the old section, memorializing the three young Burley children, who died days apart from diphtheria in 1875, leaving early settler Marcus Burley and his wife a sad start.

Ned Knevels, 20-year-old son of Chase merchant and postmaster John Knevels, met his untimely death at Crooked Lake (now Idlewild Lake) in 1900.

"Crooked Lake was very popular for swimming, and Chase people would often go there. Ned Knevels was in the water, and waved his hat. He went down, and came back up, and did this three times. His friends thought he was joking, until he did not come up again," Woods said.