Archive for Thursday, May 25, 2006

Plots abound as caretakers relate cemetery stories

May 25, 2006

For their history lesson last week, Vic and Georgia Young didn't depend on a textbook.

They used some notes, but mostly relied on their memories and let the tombstones, grave markers and surroundings of Mount Muncie Cemetery be their teaching aids.

Vic Young, former manager of the cemetery, and Ginger, his wife, talked about furniture makers, politicians, judges, bankers, bootmakers, newspapermen, murderers, children and paupers - all buried in the sprawling, 190-acre public cemetery in far northeast Lansing.

But the famous and infamous buried in the cemetery were only part of the lesson, given during a tour held in conjunction with a new exhibit at Lansing Community Museum titled, "A Grave Matter: A History of County Cemeteries."

The Youngs also spoke of trees, stones, the cemetery business, picnics and peacocks.

"There's a lot of interesting monuments in a cemetery," Vic Young told the 15 or so people who had gathered for the cemetery tour, the first of three organized in conjunction with the museum exhibit. "That's why if you go in one way, you want to drive out another way."

The monuments celebrate the lives of some of Lansing and Leavenworth's most celebrated.

Among those buried at Mount Muncie is William Lansing Taylor, the former soldier and apothecary who came to Kansas and plotted the town of Progress, which is the modern-day Lansing.

Fred Harvey, the railroad pioneer known for his dining car service and train station monuments is buried in Mount Muncie. Harvey's family monument weighs an estimated 15 to 20 tons and was brought to Mount Muncie in three pieces.

Among those buried in Mount Muncie also is the mother of famed CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite.

Georgia Young recalled the day she received a phone call from someone in search of the grave of Helen Fritsche Cronkite. The caller said he was attending a function at Fort Leavenworth, claimed to be Walter Cronkite and said he'd be arriving shortly at the cemetery.

"I said, well you just come on down," Ginger Young said, recalling her skepticism.

Sure enough, within minutes a limousine pulled up to the cemetery and out jumped Cronkite.

"I told him I thought he was a joke when he called," Ginger Young said. "He laughed and told me there were a lot of people who thought he was a joke."

Vic Young said many visitors to the cemetery eventually are pointed to Section 34, the burial site of Richard Hickok and Perry Smith, hanged in 1965 at Kansas State Penitentiary for the brutal 1959 Clutter family murders in Holcomb.

The murders were the subject of Truman Capote's epic, "In Cold Blood."

"Capote bought two markers," Vic Young said, explaining that the markers eventually were stolen, only later to be recovered near the southeast Kansas town of Iola, where they were being used as steps to a chicken coop.

The Youngs talked about "baby mounds," sections of the cemetery that had been reserved for the burial of children. From 1866, when the cemetery opened, to 1876, more than 730 died and were buried there. By contrast, in the 10 years from 1980 to 1990, just 37 youngsters were buried in the cemetery.

One section of the cemetery is a vast expanse of grass known as "Section 12," or the cemetery's first pauper section. There are no markers or monuments in the entire area.

"They're there," Vic Young said of the remains of 5,000 people who died destitute and are buried in the section. "Sad to say they didn't lay them out to where we know where they are."

In 1927, Leavenworth County purchased another 5,000 plots in Section 29 for the burial of the destitute. The section, Young said, is known by the more politically correct moniker of "the County Section" and holds about 400 deceased.

Throughout the tour, the Youngs fielded questions, explaining why some monuments had weathered better than others (northern granite repels moss better than southern granite) and pointed out a giant tulip poplar tree that once was the largest of its size in Kansas. They told how in the horse-and-buggy days people would ride out to the cemetery for the day to picnic and take in sights of peacocks that roamed the hills.

"There's so much history in here, it's hard to know what to talk about," Ginger Young said toward the end of the tour.

But lest the tour-goers think the Youngs know everything about the cemetery and its deceased inhabitants, Ginger Young offered this caveat:

"There's 28,000 people buried here; we don't know them all," she said.

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