In August 1859, a group of Syracuse’s “movers and shakers” decided that the city should invest in a new cemetery. The Rose Hill Cemetery (now a small city park) no longer was able to serve the needs of the growing municipality and many felt that it was poorly located and lacked natural beauty.
After much research and discussion, a group of interested citizens, led by Elias W. Leavenworth and John Wilkinson, determined that two tracts of land located on the southern fringes of the city would be amply suitable for purchase and use. The price was set at $24,500. Pledges amounting to $20,700 were raised and the remainder was secured through the pre-sale of cemetery lots. The Oakwood Cemetery Association was formed with Leavenworth named as its first president. What was to become one of America’s premier “rural cemeteries” had become a reality.
A noted landscape architect from New York City, Howard Daniels, was engaged to design the acreage. He immediately set to work. With the assistance of 50 workers, Daniels made sufficient progress to allow the official opening of the cemetery in November 1859. His design included varied terrain and vegetation, dotted with ponds and natural rock formations. It included the implementation of picturesque drives, benches, street signs, hitching posts, and stone steps that allowed one to alight easily from horse drawn carriages.
The first grave was dug to hold the remains of Benjamin Nukerck, the first white child to be born in the Walton Tract (the area now known as Armory Square). Mr. Nukerck had originally been buried on the bank of Onondaga Creek on Dec. 7, 1797. His new grave was subsequently marked by a small flat white stone and is located near the Amos P. Granger monument. Ephraim Webster, the first white settler in Onondaga County, was also removed to Oakwood from his original resting place in Seneca County. There are many other noted “firsts.” The first grave dug for a woman was initially dug facing the wrong direction. The inebriated gravedigger had become disoriented when he began digging at midnight and another worker had to quickly correct his mistake before the graveside services the following morning. The first child born in the cemetery was Lillian Oakwood Gardner, the daughter of the first cemetery superintendent, George Gardner.
Unfortunately, she lived for only 10 months and was put to rest in the cemetery for which she was named. The first ‘brick grave’ held the remains of Horace White, father of a future New York governor. It should also be noted that the first monument erected in the cemetery was that of James S. Crouse in early 1860.
Oakwood Cemetery is also well known for the variety of trees (more than 300) and flowers that flourish there. Foremost, of course, are the oak trees that gave the cemetery its name. Other varieties include maple, tulip, magnolia, hickory tree, as well as numerous varieties of evergreen trees and bushes. At one time, elm trees also dotted the landscape before the onset of Dutch Elm disease. Unfortunately, the Labor Day storm in 1998 also destroyed many of the original trees on the property.
The oldest part of the cemetery is Dedication Valley. A Victorian chapel — designed by noted, locally based architect, J.L. Silsbee — was constructed in 1879. This chapel served as a mausoleum, crematorium, and as a location to hold funeral services. Originally, visitors to the cemetery entered off Oakwood Avenue but the construction of Interstate 81 in 1964 forced the closing of that entrance and the destruction of the original nearby caretaker’s cottage. This entrance had been enhanced by a granite arch and iron gate in 1902, constructed at the cost of $45,000. It was located adjacent to the railway allowing visitors to take the train to the cemetery, a popular spot. A greenhouse and office building also was constructed at that time. The greenhouse, where flowers and plants were grown for the landscape and to be placed in mausoleums, was located next to the chapel with the office building across the road. Unfortunately, the greenhouse and office building no longer exist. When the original entrance was blocked, a new entrance and office building were established off Comstock Avenue.
As with most cemeteries, Oakwood Cemetery has extensive and varied examples of family monuments. Many of these monuments are large and surrounded by the smaller gravestones of individual family members. The original landscape design serves to accent the monuments rather then be dominated by them. The mausoleums are representative of many design styles. Several have been designed by noted people such as Archimedes Russell. As previously stated, James S. Crouse erected the first monument — a 30-foot tall, elaborately designed spire. John Jacob Crouse’s grave is marked by a large boulder that was moved laboriously from a farm near Marcellus. The Longstreet (he was a major salt manufacturer) monument is modeled after the pyramids with statues and benches included inside. The tomb dedicated to John H. Ryder, who died at an early age, was handsomely laid out with all the accoutrements of a comfortable Victorian sitting room. His parents were known to have visited regularly — reading by lamplight as though they were in their own living room. Other monuments include the Benjamin Colvin’s family oak tree trunk signifying strength and devotion, a stone dog near one of the Colvin families’ grave, a lifesize sculpture of a lion, and Oliver Teall Burt’s daughter Rosa’s gravesite is represented by her statue. A Civil War army general spent $25,000 on his mausoleum in 1866, which cost more than the entire bill for Oakwood’s original landscaping. Finally, one of the more interesting gravestones is a replica of four-year old Lester Tuckers’ favorite chair topped by a tasseled cape and lone shoe. A majority of the monuments, however, are more traditional.
As with most organizations, Oakwood Cemetery has suffered through some difficult times but it continues to grow and serve any family that is in the need of its services.
Karen Y. Cooney is support services administrator at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) in Syracuse.