Thursday, July 12, 2012

Walk With Ghosts

Oakwood cemetery in Syracuse entered my life only recently, although it’s been part of my history almost since its founding in 1859. Actively engaging in some serious genealogical research revealed that I’ve always had a connection to this mysterious place.  Since then, I’ve “toured” Oakwood several times.  Each time there was informative - a memorable, and at times, an enchanting experience.

That aside, I took my first “official” tour of Oakwood cemetery on a perfect Friday evening in late June. The Onondaga Historical Association sponsors each year a “Ghost Walk” guided tour of this grand old resting place adjacent to Syracuse University.  

Many well known people have as their eternal home a spot in this unique expanse of hallowed ground.  There are many, many “stories” to be told at Oakwood. The OHA tries to do just that, thru its Ghost Walk program.  It works like this.  The “tour” actually runs for two consecutive weekends, on Friday and Saturday evenings.  Groups of about 20 people leave the starting point by the old chapel every 15 minutes.  Local theater personalities assume the persona of a famous (infamous?) resident of Oakwood.  Replete with period costumes and “props,” they sit at the site of their final home and await the arrival of a tour group, led by an OHA guide. 

As each group approaches, the ghost comes alive and proceeds to tell their story.    They brought meaning to their monuments as they breathed life to the inscription in the stone.  The presentations were expertly done, and they would repeat the telling about 6 times that Friday evening. Oakwood was a busy place that night, with groups wandering all over the place. 

On this tour, there were 5 ghosts to greet us as we wound our way through the historic paths and roads.  We met Henry “Doc” Denison, Mary Amelia Prang, Maj. General Edwin Sumner, Adelaide White, and Grace Crouse.

"Doc" pleads his case
 “Doc” took up residence here in 1882.  After a brief stint as a doctor (following in his father’s footsteps) turned construction magnate, he started a partnership with James Belden (think Belden Ave.), Mayor of Syracuse for a time and a Congressman after that.  Their firm had contracts to build much of the canal systems in the CNY area, as well as other public projects.  But as so often happens when contractors meet politicians, stories began to circulate.  It seems there was some impropriety with the record keeping. It seems there were accusations.  Doc steadfastly declared his innocence to us as he pointed the finger of suspicion -  elsewhere!   He definitely had a cloud over his final home.  I’m not so sure “Doc” is really at rest, even now.

Mary Amelia greets our group
Mary Amelia was an author, an artist, and an educator. She was the founder of the Social Arts Club in Syracuse. Her life was one of high accomplishment, but she did save some of the best of her life for its twilight.   She earned her Masters degree from Harvard University at the age of 85!  Also late in life, she married Louis Prang.  A printer, lithographer, and publisher, he was known as the “Father of the American Christmas card.”  He was involved in education and the arts as well, which made for a perfect match with Mary Amelia, both professionally and personally.  She had a rich and full life, doing things most women of the time only dreamed of.  She seemed quite content,  unlike her neighbor  “Doc.”

The General naps before our visit
General Edwin Sumner (think Sumner Ave.), a command General in the Army of the Potomac, was the oldest field commander of a Corps, on either side, during the Civil War.  He had many assignments over his long career, but his personal favorite occurred when he escorted President – elect Abraham Lincoln on his inaugural journey from Springfield to Washington.  His daughter Sarah Teall (think Teall Ave.) lived in Syracuse, and while visiting her in the winter of 1862-3 (to rest between commands) he caught a cold, which - in Syracuse – in winter - got worse, until it led to a fatal heart attack.  Welcome to Syracuse General!   Stay awhile?

Adeline quietly remembers her Hamilton
Adeline White was the wife of Hamilton S. White, and she moved here in 1945, at the nice old age of 89.  She is noted for being a successful singer and inventor, but the tour focused on her marriage into the locally famous (and rich) White family.  Her husband can best be remembered as the person who single handedly transformed the science of firefighting here in Syracuse, and indeed, everywhere else. His many ideas and innovations changed the way we fight fires – forever. To say Mr. White was a “fire fighting fan” would be a vast understatement. Too much to detail here, he is an interesting chap and I encourage you to read more on this unique gentleman.
Nancy Roberts is Grace Crouse
Grace Crouse.  Well, she was the “human interest” story of the tour. Multi talented personality Nancy Roberts played to perfection the role of Grace Crouse, the, shall we say, manipulating, conniving, devious, opportunistic, “secret” wife of Edgar Crouse, one of our cities very rich pillars. There was some issue over a child born to Grace that was claimed to be Edgar’s, right about inheritance time.  Grace was also friend (for sure) and wife (maybe) to various other mysterious gentlemen from around the globe. She was supposedly married to a rich Austrian.  Then she was reported to be a Countess. To even entertain the idea that Grace chose love over comfort would be a high tribute to her skills as an actress. Did I mention Grace was also an actress?   She was delightful.  She was charming. She was charismatic. She was busy!

The “tour” took over an hour, and an extra benefit of the time spent there was not only a good walk but a brief and impressive look at the older and more magnificent portions of this historic property. That evening, we peeked for only an instant into the lives of just 5 of Oakwood’s illustrious residents.  Presently in Oakwood, there are upwards of 20,000 (and counting) such stories.  I can’t wait to meet the next group of “ghosts.”

We will see Oakwood again!

Mark Twain Quote:  “I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead – and not then until we have been dead years and years.  


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  2. I have walked my dogs in Oakwood for many years and am familiar with all the areas in your photos. However I must say the addition of "ghosts" adds a new layer to the experience. Thanks for the history lesson, filling in the blanks with the sparse information available on the headstones. Oakwood remains my favorite cemetery in all the world.

    1. I must check that email more often! As soon as the trial (will it ever end?) is over, I have a second "Ghost Wallk" ready to go up. You'll know some of these folks, and where they're now living, so to speak. And later, a post just on Oakwood itself. Thanks for posting…