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Forest Hill Cemetery

Forest Hill Cemetery (1911 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-3497

Forest Hill Cemetery

As early as September 1854, barely seven years after the village of Madison opened its first burial ground at what is now Orton Park, it became clear that more space would be needed. Both the Wisconsin State Journal and Argus called for a new cemetery. “The most appropriate spot for melancholy reflection is where the beauties of nature seem to sympathize with the feelings of mourners. In a dry and gravelly soil, the decaying bodies of the dead might securely moulder into kindred dust, with abundant vegetation and free winds to absorb and beautify all noxious effluvia.”

A committee evaluated one site near today’s Olbrich Gardens and one less than three miles west of the Capitol square. “We this morning took a view of the grounds belonging to John Wright. The tract contains 80 acres, is beautifully located, contains a fine growth of thrifty timber, is high and undulating in all directions, and commands from nearly every part a fine view of the City, Lakes Mendota, Monona and Wingra… when it is considered that the price at which Mr. W. holds it makes it only about $100 per acre, we cannot hesitate to say it is the best bargain the city can make.”

In January 1857, Darwin Clark, head of the cemetery committee, recommended that the city buy what he called Forest Hill from John and Maria Wright for $10,000 in bonds. The Common Council directed William Hough to survey the property in March 1858. Pursuing the work in addition to his regular job, he contracted pneumonia and died before the task was finished, and was laid to rest in the unimproved burying ground. His wife later sued the city to obtain the money Hough was owed for his surveying efforts.

Deming Fitch was appointed superintendent to manage the grounds, and a sexton was put in charge of interments. He received three dollars for everyone he buried over the age of 14 and two dollars for everyone younger. Lots ranged in price from seven to twenty dollars. The city offered both the Catholics and Jews the opportunity to purchase entire sections of Forest Hill for their own use; the Catholics declined, but the Jewish congregation bought section 10.

Forest Hill was a source of civic pride and initially much attention was devoted to beautifying the grounds. James Campbell built a gate and fenced much of the grounds in 1858. Henry Jacquish was paid $50 to plant trees. It was many years, however, before the primitive city cemetery evolved into a “sacred ground” and earned the respect of the populace. In fact, in February 1861 the Wisconsin Patriot reported that “Sexton John Joy informs us that some sacrilegious scoundrel has stolen his pick and spade from the side of a newly dug grave in the new cemetery. He was discriminating enough to leave the shovel and broom. Such a thief would steal acorns from a blind hog, and must indeed be a contemptible specimen of humanity.” Two months later Alderman Tierney called for an ordinance to keep cattle out of the cemetery.

The receiving vault was built sometime in the 1860s; it was used to store bodies during the winter months when the ground was too frozen to dig. The Soldiers Lot and Confederate Rest were created of necessity during the Civil War. In 1865 a 165-foot deep well was dug with a 70-foot windmill tower over it; from its top could be obtained an extended view of the surrounding country. The family of John Catlin donated the chapel in 1878. A streetcar waiting station was built at the entrance in the 1890s, and was later transformed into the cemetery office.

At one time a series of effigy mounds dating from 900 to 1200 A. D. graced the ridge overlooking Lake Wingra; today only two water spirits, one linear mound, and a goose effigy remain.

In 1928 Forest Hill was expanded. An additional 20 acres were carved from the Zwerg farm and another 60 acres were obtained from the Wingra Land Company. The latter acres are now Glenway Golf Course.

Mark Gajewski