Forestvale: Helena’s Victorian Cemetery

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Its castellated Gothic gate standing silently a few blocks off of Montana Avenue south of downtown Helena, Forestvale Cemetery was established, at the end of a trolley line, in 1890.  Montana has just become a state and Helena would soon enough become the permanent state capitol.  The cemetery is the final resting place for town and state founders, pioneers, and the hundreds of workers, merchants, ranchers, and mechanics who shaped Helena’s history for over 100 years.

MT Lewis and Clark County Helena Forestvale Cemetery

As the interpretive marker at the entrance cemetery notes, the cemetery came into public ownership in 1991 and has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  It “was designated as a ‘Rural Park,’ a place to walk through Montana history.”

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I would agree fully with that assertion.  When I moved to Montana in 1981 my first abode was the Chessman Flats, a Victorian row house converted to apartments next to the Original Governor’s Mansion.  I soon sought out Chessman’s final resting place, a sizable family plot shown above.  I also discovered the graves of many famous late 19th century Montanans who I was just learning about.  Samuel Hauser, the banker and early territorial governor, is buried here in another family plot.

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The Fergus family was another name I recalled, especially with the proud designation of “Pioneers 1862”.  Several markers, like that for the Ecler family below,  note the final resting place of that first generation of settlers in the Big Sky Country.  Nor is Hauser the

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only governor to be buried here.  Tim Babcock, a late 20th century governor, is buried with a marker that outlines the state of Montana, a fitting tribute.

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The Nicolas family plot is one of the view, compared to the many at Benton Avenue Cemetery, to be outlined by a low metal fence.  But Forestvale also has a handful of the distinctive hollowed press metal grave markers, like the flamboyant combination of classical and Victorian motifs of the Leslie family marker.

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The pressed metal markers for the Leslies are just the beginning of the Victorian funerary art represented at Forestvale.  As shown below there is the Richardsonian Romanesque grave house memorial for the Brown family and the cut-off limbs monument for Mary Love Stoakes, who died in 1889.

Beautiful statuary is reflected in the grave marker for Lillian Stoakes Cullen, who died in 1897.

 

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But as is obvious in the background of the photographs above, the great majority of the grave markers at Forestvale are much more restrained, rectangular slabs of rock, respectful but minus the Victorian flourish.

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At the rear of the cemetery markers are missing, or are small and unadorned.  In the far corner is a later memorial to at least 22 children who died at the Montana Children’s Home and Hospital from 1917 to 1932.

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The cemetery’s interpretive marker noted that at Forestvale “There was never any prejudice as to creed or color.” That is not true, outside the north fence of the cemetery is a grave yard for Chinese residents of Helena.  This section is not well kept, and judging from the number of depressions, the number of people buried here could be sizable.

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A summer 2018 story in the Helena Independent Record told of a new local effort to identify the number of graves in this section and to begin a process to right a wrong.  Certainly the present condition is unacceptable, and hopefully steps will finally take place to place the “Chinese section” into the publicly owned and maintained cemetery.

Helena’s Benton Avenue Cemetery (1870)

MT Lewis and Clark County Benton Cemetery

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.

MT Lewis and Clark County Benton Cemetery 18But 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.

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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

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MT Lewis and Clark County Benton Cemetery 12plots–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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

MT Lewis and Clark County Benton Cemetery 28Benton 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.

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Butte’s historic cemeteries

IMG_0907Far from the bustle and grime of the Richest Hill on Earth are the historic cemeteries of Butte.  As I have said many times already in this blog, I rarely considered cemeteries during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work.  That was a huge mistake for Butte.  The three historic cemeteries I wish to consider here–Mt. Moriah, St. Patrick’s, and B’nai Israel–document the city’s ethnic diversity like few other resources, reinforcing how groups survived in a city together although they often keep to their separate communities.  But the cemeteries also have sculpture and art worthy of attention and preservation–they are outstanding examples of late 19th and early 20th cemetery art and craftsmanship in the United States.

IMG_0908The Masons established Mr. Moriah Cemetery Association in 1877.  The cemetery has many striking markers, especially the Thompson Arches (seen above and below), an elaborate statement to mark a family plot, especially when compared to the cast-iron

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fences found elsewhere in the cemetery, like for the Nicholls family. The Victorian cast

IMG_0911iron fence, when combined with the carving and detail of the gravestone itself makes quite the statement for Cornish identity in Butte at the turn of the century.  Note the dual fraternal lodge marks, one for the Masons, another (the linked chain) for the Odd Fellows.

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IMG_0904Frank Beck left this earth in 1909, and the marker for Frank and his wife Agnes is remarkable for the inclusion of the family pet, noted above as Frank and His Faithful Dog.

The early 20th century gravestones and family plots are impressive largely wherever you ramble in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, and I am limiting my comments to merely a few markers. But you cannot help but notice the family gravestone, sculpture actually, for the Noyes family, a large neoclassical setting with the motif “The Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away,” framed by two large metal angels holding wreaths.

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Not everything in Mt. Moriah is so spectacular, but the evidence of the skill and creativity of Butte’s gravestone makers can be found throughout the property.

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B’nai Israel Cemetery is small in comparison yet it is a valuable space that documents the Jewish community’s long history in Butte. It is not quite as early as Mt. Moriah, dating to

IMG_09281881 when the Hebrew Benevolent Association first acquired the land from the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Congregation B’nai Israel acquired the property in 1905, two years after finishing its landmark synagogue in uptown Butte.

B'nai Israel Cemetery, Butte

St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery is also located in this part of the city.  It dates to the 1870s and contains thousands of burials.  When I visited in 2012 the cemetery was in OK condition but needed help, not just in basic maintenance but in the repair of tombstone damaged over the decades.  Just about a year ago in a story in the Montana Standard of March 1, 2015, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Irish Catholic fraternal group, pledged new efforts for the cemetery’s preservation: “‘A walk around this holy ground will tell you more about the people of Butte than a week spent at the library,’ said Jim Sullivan, one of 60 members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Butte.”

IMG_0927The cemetery seems to stretch to the very edge of the city, but it is worth a long walk around for what you can discover about the Catholic impact on Butte in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

IMG_0926There are spectacular sculptural monuments to prominent city builders, such as the Classical Revival-style temple crypt for merchant price D. J. Hennessy.

IMG_0919Adjacent are separate plots maintained for Sisters who served and died in Butte as well as larger, more elaborate memorials for priests who served in Butte over the years.

A surprise near the rear of the cemetery is a large memorial section for military veterans of the Spanish-American War of the late 1890s.  This conflict is often ignored in today’s history books but numerous cemeteries in Montana have memorial sections for those who fought and died in that war.

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The dominant grave marker at St. Patrick’s is a small stone tablet but cemetery sculpture emphasizing the cross can be found throughout the property.

Then there are a handful of sculptural markers with an angel theme, and these are among the most spectacular in the cemetery. The Daly marker (below) is an elegant, moving

statement of loss and sorrow.  The O’Farrell monument (below) likewise conveys sorrow and loss in the combination of an angel and the cross but by including a relief carving of O’Farrell it also serves as a very public memorial for a prominent family member.

Throughout this brief exploration of three historic cemeteries, I have deliberately left the stories associated with this remarkable cemetery art to the side.  A few years ago, in 2010, local historian Zena Beth McGlashan published her book “Buried in Butte.” I wished the book had existed in 1985–maybe then I would not have ignored one of the most fascinating and significant sections of Butte: its three adjacent historic cemeteries along South Montana Street.  Next, an exploration of Mountain View Cemetery.