Nestled in the shadows of Mount Helena, across the street from Carroll College, with its boundaries made up of 1950s and 1960s suburban housing, and the historic main line of the Northern Pacific Railroad is Benton Avenue Cemetery, which dates to 1870. The preservation effort here over a generation has met with several successes. The cemetery was reclaimed, documented, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
But my visit on Memorial Day 2018 left me with the feeling that the cemetery is an under-appreciated historic property. There are no signs of true neglect, but it was so quiet on Memorial Day that I did think the place had become an almost forgotten historic asset–an afterthought in today’s busy world. I hope not–because this cemetery has many jewels to explore and appreciate. Perhaps the most striking–certainly most rare to see–are the cast iron baskets–or bassinets, see below, that surround two children’s graves.
These are remarkable yet sad artistic creations–I have not seen anything comparable in my research in historic cemeteries in either the west, the midwest, or the south. The Benton Avenue Cemetery has an amazing array of cast-iron fencing that define family
plots–certainly the ironwork was a status symbol in the late 19th century and there is no one statement. Families adorned their graves with fences much as they surrounded their houses in the nearby neighborhoods.
There are numerous hollowed cast-iron grave markers too. Almost everytime I share this late 19th century style marker with a viewer, they say, well they must be rare, what an odd thing. But these markers were wildly popular in the railroad era. You could
order the marker with whatever designs or inscriptions you wish and they would soon be delivered. Finding family groups of these hollow metal markers is rare, however, so the grouping for the Toole family at Benton Avenue deserves a close look.
Veterans of the U.S. Army, several dating to service in the Civil War, are buried at Benton Avenue. Other graves are just marked by slowly fading wood tablets.
Ornamental planting abounds, and added beautiful color on Memorial Day. My favorite grave marker is both early and unique. Cast-iron is a material once crucial for all sorts of items in a household: pots, pans, tools, fire backs. But a cast-iron grave marker–made of a single rectangular tablet with name and designs? That’s something special.
Benton Avenue Cemetery is worth a new consideration for its many different forms, materials, and designs. When I lived in Helena some thirty-five years ago, I gave it scant attention–it deserves so much more.