From the outside, Whitewater’s Oak Grove Cemetery appears like any other pioneer burial ground.
But pass through its historic gate, and you’ll discover the rich stories under the shade of sweeping spruce trees.
“It is an unbelievable walk through history,” said Pat Blackmer on a recent morning as she unlocked the cemetery’s gate.
Blackmer proposed that the site become the city’s 24th local landmark, and the Whitewater Landmarks Commission unanimously approved it earlier this month.
The cemetery’s new designation is a reminder of the importance of saving the past.
The landmark status helps draw attention to the site and educates the public about its history, said Dan Richardson of the landmarks commission.
“That’s the big reason I voted for it,” he explained.
In addition, the cemetery on East Main Street is now protected by local ordinance, Blackmer said.
Among the more than 800 recorded burials are Whitewater’s 19th-century movers and shakers.
- Dr. James Trippe, father of Whitewater’s first industry, a grist mill, which breathed economic life into the struggling young village.
- Prosper Cravath, a meticulous keeper of Whitewater’s history who wrote “The Early Annals of Whitewater.”
- George Esterly, who had a cast-iron archway created in his foundry and installed at the cemetery as an entryway in 1884. Esterly owned a large reaper factory on the east side of Whitewater, where employee housing sprung up. The area became known as Reaperville.
The 3-plus-acre site also contains the graves of many soldiers, including Eli Pierce of Vermont and Israel Ferris of New York. Both fought in the Revolutionary War.
“It is unusual to find two soldiers of this war buried at the same site,” Blackmer said.
“This cemetery is one of a few in Wisconsin that can claim this.”
In addition, the site has three graves of soldiers from the War of 1812 and about 40 soldiers from the Civil War, including William Quals of the 29th U.S. Colored Regiment, Co. I.
The gated cemetery is no longer used and kept locked because of extensive vandalism in the past.
But people can visit the property by contacting the sexton, whose information is posted near the entrance.
It is not surprising that Blackmer researched and proposed the site for landmark status.
She is a history lover and retired teacher. She also is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the War of 1812 and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Blackmer and Richardson own Whitewater’s historic Smith-Allen House, an eye-catching example of Italianate-Villa-style architecture built in 1856. The house was designated the first local landmark in Whitewater in 1983. It retains the home’s original horse-hitching post, the only one left in Whitewater.
Blackmer wants other landmark sites in the city to be identified.
“We have more to do,” she said. “We are always looking for people who will make their property a local landmark.”
To get landmark designation, a building, structure or archeological site must either represent an individual or an ongoing historical event that is significant at the local, state or national level.
Or it must be identified with a historic person or people in local, state or national history.
Blackmer fears society has become “disposable.”
“Technology is moving at such a rapid pace,” she said. “People don’t realize that our history needs to be preserved.”
She worries the next generation may not appreciate the value of saving the past.
“Things like history are not always being taught,” Blackmer said.
“Therefore our young people don’t understand the importance of it.”
Richardson cited a quote by author Michael Crichton:
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.