OPINION: Woodlawn Cemetery: Claremore's City of the Dead


Did you ever play “Ghost in the Graveyard” as a child, that spirited nighttime game of hide and seek in which players searched for the hidden “ghost” and upon finding “it” sang out the alarm, “Ghost in the Graveyard?”

One wonders. How many games of “Ghost in the Graveyard” were played in the schoolyard of Claremore’s Academy School (built 1905). During its existence, the school backed up directly onto Claremore’s Woodlawn Cemetery land. An old postcard photo shows children and teachers poised in front of the school with gravestones, such as the Davis and Bullette monuments, rising up like apparitions in the distance.

Originally, the sacred family burial grounds of the Hicks and McCoy clans, Woodlawn cemetery expanded over the years since Cherokee diplomat Elijah Hicks was buried in the southern section in 1856. Mr. Hicks holds the distinction of being the first known resident of the cemetery. A historic marker set in 1994 by the Rogers County Historical Society indicates the place and tells more of this heroic Cherokee’s accomplishments.

Doris Hays Gilstrap informs readers in The History of Rogers County, “Dr. W.F. Hays and W.P. Johnston owned a piece of land joining the Woodlawn Cemetery which they gave to the city, retaining only family plots.” The Hays and Johnston sites lie on the western side of the cemetery near the Academy School’s former location.

Now, this “City of the Dead,” as it was called in pioneer days, is managed by the City of Claremore. According to Tim Sang, Cemetery Superintendent, it spans 34 well-trimmed, rolling, acres and enshrouds about 21,000 graves.

Yet, the cemetery was not always so well-tended. Many of the graves of the earliest pioneers (reported to be buried at the city cemetery in early Claremore newspaper obituaries) can no longer be located as their markers have decayed over time.

In the fall of 1898, the Cherokee Vindicator (10-28-1898) admonished, “The cemetery deserves more attention from our people than it is receiving and someone should take hold of the matter and see that it is properly cared for. There is a number of elegant monuments in the cemetery and with a little labor the grounds could be made one of the handsomest in the territory. The cemetery is one of the oldest in the country and should be cleared and a sexton employed to look after it. The weeds and grass are very high and are now quite dry, and a lighted match or cigar dropped into them would start a fire and destroy the fence surrounding it and would also damage many of the tombstones.” Again, in 1899, the Claremore Progress (4-22-1899) echoed, “Measures should be taken to improve the appearance of our city cemetery. The fence enclosing it should be repaired so as to keep all stock out, and it should be cleaned up and the weeds kept down this summer. The proper care of the home of the dead is a mark of high civilization.”

The following January 1900, the Women’s Cemetery Association, “organized to care for and beautify ‘our city of the dead,’” came to the rescue. Mrs. A.L. Kates became the organization’s first president. The goal of these ladies was to put the cemetery “in first-class shape” (CP,1-12-1900). They promised to “keep the grass in the potters’ field in neat condition” and to also “keep the graves in lots belonging to non-residents, or of residents who utterly neglect them, or those who are too poor or too shiftless to attend to it themselves, in good condition” (CP,1-27-1900). The Claremore Progress carried this “Cemetery Notice. All persons having relatives or friends buried within thirty feet of the south fence of the city cemetery, in Potter’s field, are requested to move them as we wish to open up the drive immediately” (3-23-1900). Exhuming and reburying these bodies would have been no small task. The Association also asked that everyone who owned “lots in the city cemetery to have the same cleaned up and in as good shape as possible by May 1st,” urging, “if everyone will act promptly, it will not be long until Claremore’s ‘City of the Dead’ will present a spectacle of solemn loveliness” (CP,4-7-1900).

April 14, 1900, the Claremore Progress complimented, “A visit to our city cemetery this week by the writer was a revelation. The grounds were hardly recognizable. Claremore now has one of the neatest cemeteries in the Territory, and too much praise cannot be given to the ladies who have the work in charge. Their excellent work will undoubtedly receive hearty support from lot owners in the cemetery. They deserve it.”

Yet, challenges arose. An announcement was posted in the Claremore Progress (5-18-1901), “Parties destroying and picking flowers from private lots at the cemetery are warned to desist or they will be prosecuted. By order of the Ladies’ Cemetery Association.” Furthermore, the Ladies’ Cemetery Association announced that “anyone digging a grave in Woodlawn Cemetery without a permit from the president, Mrs. Harry Jennings, or the sexton will be fined $10” (CP,10-10-1908).

Through donations [one notable five dollar one given by Clem V. Rogers (CP,5-25-1901)]; fundraising efforts (musical soirees, ice cream socials, home talent plays, chicken pie and box suppers); and membership dues, the Ladies’ Cemetery Association was able to employ a man “to work at the cemetery all the time” (CP,5-25-1901). Interesting to note, after December 1902 the city cemetery was finally referred to as Woodlawn Cemetery in newspaper publications (CP, 12-27-1902).

Decoration Day-Memorial Day observation commenced in the now beautiful cemetery surroundings. The invitation read, “All persons having loved ones buried at the cemetery are invited to bring flowers and decorate their graves. A programme of singing and speaking, which is now being arranged, will take place at two o’clock. Judge Jennings, the ministers of our city, and others will deliver addresses. The merchants of the town are requested to close their stores during the afternoon so that all may have an opportunity to attend.” In 1903’s memorial program, “little girls led by C.V. Rogers and Capt. Eddy, decorated all the known graves of old soldiers of the blue and the gray (Civil War veterans). Before closing the services Capt. Eddy, assisted by some of the little girls, erected a floral cross to the memory of the unknown dead, and the services closed with ‘Taps,’ rendered by Mr. Saunders, the bandmaster” (Claremore Messenger, 6-5-1903).

The City Council instructed a cemetery committee, in 1904, “to look into the matter of the purchase of the city cemetery” (CP,4-23-1904). Thereafter, “a resolution was passed permitting the Woodlawn Cemetery Association to have the cemetery surveyed and platted into lots. It was also granted permission to sell lots at any price agreed upon by the Association in accordance with the rules of the Association, making the Association custodians of the cemetery” (Claremore Messenger, 11-3-1904).

Today, Woodlawn Cemetery is a place of education, recreation, and quiet reflection. Like a history museum, it displays row upon row of ancient artifacts, tombstone epitaphs that live on to tell the tale of Claremore’s unique and ofttimes dramatic past. Listen closely. You might even hear children’s voices floating on the breeze, laughing as they shout, “Ghost in the Graveyard.”

Christa Rice is a Claremore history enthusiast, writer for ExploreClaremoreHistory.com and a columnist for the Claremore Progress.

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