Setting history right
When Gerald O'Connor, physician for the University of Michigan football team, died in 2004, his wife, Margaret, buried him in the Lodi Township Cemetery, near their farm. Never one to do anything halfway, she special-ordered a casket from Texas with a horse design.
Dr. O'Connor's good friend Don Canham, U-M athletic director from 1968 to 1988, also lived in Lodi Township. One day, driving by the graveyard at the corner of Ann Arbor-Saline and Textile roads, he mentioned to his wife, Peg, that he too would like to be buried there. He died the next year and was laid to rest near his friend in the newest section at the back of the cemetery.
On her visits, Peg Canham often looked at the older headstones. She saw that a lot of children under twelve died in the 1840s and 1850s. She also noticed that men often outlived several wives, who probably died in childbirth. "I began to wonder who they were," she says.
Margaret O'Connor noticed Canham's frequent visits to the cemetery and burgeoning interest in history. The two women knew each other through their husbands but had not been particularly close. "Our husbands were like rock stars," explains Canham. O'Connor adds, "They did all the talking. They were bigger than life."
O'Connor, however, had her own list of accomplishments. She had served as a Lodi Township trustee, county commissioner, and state representative. A few years before her husband died, someone asked O'Connor a question about township history that she couldn't answer. Research yielded little. "I went to the township board and they didn't have any information either," she says. "They said, 'You have a job.'"
O'Connor began poring over old township minutes and budgets, plat maps, and other records. She discovered that Lodi Township was named after an area near New York's Finger Lakes and was established in 1834, three years before Michigan became a state. She learned that Ann Arbor-Saline Road was originally a plank road and charged a toll of a penny per horse.
O'Connor enlisted Canham to join her history project. She took her to the deserted 1867 Lodi Township Hall on Pleasant Lake Road near Zeeb. The third-oldest township hall in the state, it had been abandoned in 1986 for a new hall farther east on Pleasant Lake Road.
In the back of the hall is the dais where the township officials met, behind a railing and in front of an American flag. Five polling booths line the west side of the hall, each with a writing desk that pulls down. The potbellied stove has been sold, but you can still see where the chimney was. According to the deed, which O'Connor had come across in her research, the township paid $40 for the eighth-of-an-acre parcel. The restroom was an outhouse in back. The hall didn't even have electricity until the 1930s, this modernization having been voted down several times.
O'Connor and Canham organized an architectural charrette to brainstorm ideas on future uses of the hall. They invited anyone who might he interested, including Lodi Township's board and planning commission and Eastern Michigan University historic preservation students and their professors. The volunteer advisors came up with plenty of suggestions for new uses: flower museum, wedding hall, even a place to leach government.
The EMU students estimated it would cost about $60,000 to restore the hall. The biggest expense would be shoring up the buckling back wall. Space for parking would be a problem if the building were redesigned for public use.
Shortly after the two women began working on the old Township Hall, O'Connor suggested they also work on the cemetery. The fence was about to fall down, many of the stones were tipped over, moles had taken over sections, and weeds were everywhere.
The Lodi graveyard predates the hall by forty years. According to the Chapman publishing company's 1881 History of Washtenaw County, "The first deaths recorded are those of Miss Betsy Howe, daughter of Orrin, who died in 1827. About the same time, Mr. Howe's hired man was consigned to mother earth. Their graves formed the nucleus of Lodi Plains cemetery." (Old maps show the "plains" in the southeast section.)
The Howe family were among the first settlers in Lodi in 1825. They purchased land in sections 23 and 24, and buried their dead in the back of section 24. It became a community graveyard in 1831 with the burial of Bazzila Goodrich. Today, anyone who has been a township resident can be buried there.
The Howe family graves are in the southwest corner of the cemetery, in a roped-off area with a big stele in the middle. Orrin Howe was the first township postmaster and justice of the peace. He was a state legislator and a member of the state constitutional convention. Other early township settlers buried near the Howe plot include Gilbert Alien, who, according to the Chapman history, was me "first temperance apostle in the town," and two of the first elders of the Presbyterian church, Mather Marvin and Horace Booth.
Professor Rufus Nutting, who in 1847 started an academy across the road from the cemetery, is also buried there. His school's main aim was to prepare students for the University of Michigan. "It was one of the best schools of its type anywhere in the Midwest," says Robert Lane, a Saline historian. "It was also unusual in that it was about forty percent women."
Also in the cemetery is Captain John Lowry, whose farm was just north of it. Lowry, like Howe, was a state legislator. A strong abolitionist, he was involved in the Underground Railroad. As the Chapman history reported, "The oppressed bloodhound-hunted children of our common father often found rest and comfort in Capt. L.'s well-stored house, where much money and clothing were given to supply the wants of the escaped slaves."
The gravestones in the older part of the cemetery are sandstone. Most of these markers are inscribed with the complete dates of birth and death, age of the deceased in years and months, and other things such as birthplace, spouses' names, Bible verses, poems, or short sayings such as "Asleep in Jesus" or "Not dead but sleepeth." Many stones have carved images, the most common being weeping willows but also Bibles, fingers pointing to heaven, or clasped hands.
The early settlers chose sandstone because it was easy to carve—but it also easily weathered, and over time the markings have eroded. The lightweight stones also fall over easily, and can end up covered and hidden by grass.
Markers on the newer graves, north and east of the oldest part, are mostly made of granite. These heavier stones last longer, but they're more expensive to carve and usually have less written on them. An unmarked area along the north fence is believed to have been the potter's field, where poor people who couldn't afford markers were buried.
The main path leads to a grass-covered stone mausoleum built in 1875. Mausoleums, common in old cemeteries, were used to store bodies while the ground was frozen. They were usually built into hills, but because Lodi Cemetery is on flat land, a hill had to be formed and concrete poured around it as a base for the stones. Canham and O'Connor started the cemetery project by working on weekends to clean up brush and debris. Vines covering headstones had to be carefully removed by hand. They soon found a third volunteer—Wayne Clements, president of the Saline Area Historical Society, whose wife, Jane, is buried in the cemetery. Working with Clements, the two women formed the tax-exempt Lodi Township Historic Preservation Group, a subsidiary of the Saline society. They're working through the group to raise money for fixing up the cemetery and eventually restoring the old Township Hall.
The fence was the first priority, since it's what everyone driving by sees. They were told that replacing it would cost $60,000, but O'Connor found a man who would sandblast off the rust and repaint it for $22,000, saving the original fence. The two widows each put in $1,000, as did longtime Lodi resident Margaret Brusher, and the township paid the rest.
Canham got Clements to help her work on the smaller gravestones, digging up fallen ones and putting them upright. The larger ones needed professional attention. The preservation group has raised money to pay for cleaning and raising some of these stones and for repairing the mausoleum, now used to store the sexton's tools.
The work of Canham, O'Connor, and Clements is making the cemetery a pleasanter place. As soon as Canham began visiting the cemetery regularly, she began doing things to improve its looks, like painting the water pump, planting flowers in front, and putting in benches. There's talk about eventually putting up a gazebo or picnic table. Picnicking in a graveyard was common in the nineteenth century, when cemeteries functioned more like public parks. Thanks to the volunteers, Lodi's cemetery is once again becoming a retreat for the living.
After their well-known husbands died. Peg Canham and Margaret O'Connor decided to spruce up their burial grounds.