Highland Cemetery-The Beginning

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Spring 2008,
Spring 2008
Original Images:


Author: Al Rudisill

Highland Cemetery is located on land that once belonged to Native Americans, then to the French who were granted claims to it in 1811 after the Revolutionary War, then to English and American settlers who arrived in Ypsilanti from New England, New York and other places. In 1863 it became the property of the stockholders of a “joint stock cemetery association” that was set up by twenty-five prominent men of the City.

The twenty-five men drew up “articles of association” that required the stock of the association be sold in shares of $50 and… should be limited to $10,000 in the aggregate.” The articles further provided that the enterprise be under the management of a board of nine directors to be elected by the stockholders. The following gentlemen were chosen: B. Follett, D. Showerman, F. K. Rexford, H. Batchelder, E. Bogardus, A. S. Welch, M. L. Shutts, D. L. Quirk and J. L. Rappelye. Officers elected were: A. S. Welch, President; F. K. Rexford, Secretary; and B. Follett, Treasurer. One hundred-forty shares were eventually sold raising $7,000 for the purchase and development of Highland Cemetery.

The directors proceeded at once to purchase a tract of land of approximately forty acres that many of them had considered as eminently adaptable for use as a cemetery. The property consisted of portions of the farms of G. S. Hibbard and B. Miller. The soil was light, warm and easily worked and more than half the property was covered with native trees, including oak and hickory. The remainder of the property consisted of grassy knolls and pleasant valleys that were ideal for the development of a natural garden-like setting of winding drives, walks, shrubs, flowers, monuments and ornate sculptures.

Above: The original forty acres of Highland Cemetery as designed by Colonel Glen and dedicated in 1864.

Right: Author Douglas Keister indicated the Maltese Cross could represent the Military or a secret society like the Knights of Pythias.

There were commanding views, one overlooking the city and the other overlooking a long stretch of river scenery.

The Highland Board moved quickly in July of 1863 to employ Colonel James Lewis Glen of Niles, Michigan to lay out and map the cemetery grounds. He proceeded that fall, with suitable assistants, to lay out the grounds in a “natural garden-like setting” which reflected the trends for cemetery design in America, France, England and other countries in Europe. When efforts had to be terminated because of the severity of winter, Glen then spent his time projecting in elaborate detail the layout of the entire forty acres. In May of 1864 Glen and his assistants resumed work on staking out the roads and beautifying the landscape. An article in the July 1, 1864 Ypsilanti True Democrat, indicated:”…to say that the results of Col. Glen's protracted labors are highly satisfactory to the Board is but a mild expression. The truth is, in this direction he is an accomplished artist. His method of embellishment is pre-eminently the natural one.”

If you look at an aerial view of the original layout of Highland Cemetery you can see a number of distinct figures designed into the winding roads and paths. The figures include an Eastern Star, a Maltese Cross, a Horseshoe, an Elf Shoe, a Cloverleaf, and a Star of David. The reason for, and the meaning of, these figures remains a mystery since a review of early Highland Cemetery Board minutes, newspaper articles including several from 1864, and Highland Cemetery literature from 1864 to the present failed to reveal even a mention of the figures. An inquiry to Douglas Keister, author of Stories in Stone-A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, brought the following response:”…the design certainly indicates that certain areas were reserved for certain groups…Eastern Star indicates a Masonic Area, Star of David, Jewish, Maltese Cross could be Military or a secret society like the Knights of Pythias. A wild guess for the elf shoe could be Babyland.” However, there is no evidence that any priority was ever given for the burial of members of certain groups within the blocks where the figures exist. Further, other cemeteries designed by Colonel Glen do not contain figures like those in Highland Cemetery.