A cemetery tells the story of the community. Graves of preachers, doctors, businessmen, tradesmen, early settlers, historians, a town hermit, heroic police officers, authors, artists, and even young Odawa children can be found here, at Oakwood Cemetery.
Oakwood Cemetery was officially established in 1872. However, the first known burial was in 1849, when a three year old girl named Zilpha Severy was buried in the old part of the cemetery. From 1849 until 1872 when it was officially established, there were 128 recorded burials. Before the city borders were extended, the cemetery was in Lowell Township. Today it is within the Lowell City limits. After adding land purchased from Rowland Ryder on the north side, the cemetery now covers 19 acres.
Where were burials previous to Oakwood Cemetery? It is told in Chapman’s 1881 History of Kent County, that the first burial ground was the old “Indian battlefield” that was half a mile west on the Ada Road (Bowes Road). The early settlers remembered watching the burial of a chief there. It was said “the dead warrior was placed in a rude pit in a sitting posture, surrounded with all his favorite pipes, guns, and poetries.” The Odawa, also used a burial ground on the West Bank of the Flat River and another on the side of the hill west of Oakwood, which is believed to be the reason the settlers used the adjacent ground as a cemetery.
For a while there was another cemetery in town. In 1893 the Lowell township board purchased thirteen acres of land for a cemetery. This was located a mile west on the Ada road, in the same general area as the Odawa burial ground. Riverside Cemetery flooded at times so it didn’t prove to be very popular. In the ten years it was open, there were only fourteen interments. This is what led the Township board, in 1903, to vacate Riverside Cemetery. Five acres were then purchased from Rowland Ryder on the north side of Oakwood cemetery for $1000. The bodies were removed from Riverside and located at Oakwood for free. The land that Riverside Cemetery had occupied was then sold.
The G.A.R. Civil War monument and cannon memorial has been the center of Lowell’s focus for Decoration Day, now Memorial Day, since May, 1900, when it was installed. There are many, many veterans, ranging from the War of 1812 through Desert Storm, including Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Benjamin Morse buried at Oakwood. Morse served during the Civil War and was taken prisoner. He earned the award when on May 12, 1864 he captured the colors of the 4th Georgia Battery at Spotsylvania, Virginia.
In 2018, there were about 5000 burials, 616 of those are unknowns. Unknowns can be caused by unmarked graves and deterioration of records, or truly an unknown, someone no one knows. One of the unknowns was a man who died on the train as it came into town. No one knew his name so they wrapped him in a blanket and buried him in the paupers section.
A gravestone represents a life, and Oakwood cemetery represents the history of Lowell, told through the people who have lived here.
Former Sexton Don DeJong has written a series of books on the inhabitants of Oakwood Cemetery. These books offer fascinating glimpses into the past and the lives of Lowell citizens. The books are available in the Museum gift shop.
Oakwood Cemetery First Historical Walk (Civil War)
Oakwood Cemetery Second Historical Walk (Early Settlers)
Oakwood Cemetery Third Historical Walk (Businessmen)
If These Oaks Could Only Speak Volumes I-IV. (Each volume covers a different section of the cemetery)