History lies at rest in Forest Home
John Gurda

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It still lives up to its name. Whether you stroll beneath its broad leaves in July or observe its bare bones in January, Forest Home Cemetery is practically an arboretum. This sylvan retreat preserves a generous cross-section of trees native to Wisconsin, but a different kind of his¬tory abides beneath its sheltering branches. Forest Home is the oldest active cemetery in Milwaukee, and few graveyards in the Midwest can match its blend of beauty and historical significance.

It was pure necessity that brought the burial ground into being. Nearly all of Milwaukee’s first cemeteries were located near the city’s expanding downtown, and most fell victim to urban development within a decade of their creation. As graveyards were taken for homes and highways, the bones of uncounted pioneers were unceremoniously heaped by the wayside.

The people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a well-heeled congregation in the Yankee Hill neighborhood, decided to end the sacrilege. In 1850, they bought seventy-three wooded acres on the new Janesville Plank Road and declared their intention to develop “a cemetery for the city.” Forest Home, as they called their project, was conceived as a “garden” cemetery, a place for “melancholy meditation” that would eventually become, as St. Paul’s hoped, “a monument of the taste and liberality of the citizens of Milwaukee.”

That is precisely what happened. Forest Home was soon Milwaukee’s cemetery of choice, and its residents constituted a Who Was Who of local notables. Beer barons and barristers, manufacturers and merchants, publishers and politicians all found a final resting place beneath the tall trees of Forest Home. The cemetery became such a fixture that the city end of the Janesville Plank Road was renamed Forest Home Avenue in 1872.

Although families of more modest means outnumbered them, it was the wealthy who had the most visible impact on the cemetery. From the 1870s through the turn of the century, Forest Home was the scene of a monumental outbreak of one-upmanship. Obelisks, pyramids, crosses, columns, and spheres sprouted like mushrooms after a rain, each larger than the last. As sculptors worked their magic, some sections of Forest Home became virtual sororities of somber stone women, and the cemetery was dotted with one-of-a-kind markers ranging from a massive marble book to a granite steamship.

Liquor wholesaler Emil Schneider won the monument derby in 1894, when his family put up an eighty-four-ton stone pillar capped by the figure of a Greek goddess. But brewer Emil Blatz had the largest structure on the grounds: a 500-ton mausoleum with marble walls and a tile-covered ceiling. Finished in 1896, it stood directly across the road from monuments to the Pabst and Schlitz families, just as brewery-owned saloons once filled competing corners at dozens of Milwaukee street intersections. The cluster is still known as “Brewer’s Corners:’

A full-time staff of at least fifty people created a splendid setting for the private monuments. In the late 1800s, they developed picturesque ponds, ornate fountains, a brownstone chapel, and seventeen miles of carriageways and footpaths. Flowers absorbed a major portion of their time. Forest Home’s greenhouses produced as many as 135,000 plants every year in the 1880s. Most were used on private graves, but thou¬sands adorned the cemetery’s common areas. Dozens of beds were laid out with mathematical precision, producing intricate patterns of texture and color in the best Victorian fashion

All this beauty was not lost on the people of Milwaukee. At a time when most public parks were little more than postage stamps of greenery pasted into teeming neighborhoods, Forest Home was the most lav¬ishly developed and lovingly tended open space in the entire region. It combined the attractions of the Boerner Botanical Gardens, the Bradley Sculpture Garden, and the Mitchell Park Domes in one sylvan package. With the addition of a few deer, a flock of peacocks, and the fish in its ponds, Forest Home was even a small-scale zoo.

Milwaukeeans couldn’t get enough of it. On summer Sundays, streetcars bound for the cemetery were packed with families seeking an afternoon of relief from the clamor and congestion of the city. A gatekeeper interviewed in 1888 estimated that Sunday attendance reached a peak of 8,000 people.

There were fewer visitors after 1900, for a variety of reasons. Milwaukee finally began to develop the park system that would win it world renown. Forest Home’s sense of splendid isolation faded as the surrounding blocks filled in with homes. Other cemeteries began to challenge the long-time leader for market share during the same years. Although it was eclipsed to some degree, Forest Home did not fade into obscurity. The cemetery continued to expand and evolve, keeping pace with every shift in public taste and industry practice. From “memory gardens” to above-ground crypts, Forest Home offered the full range of twentieth-century burial arrangements, and the cemetery’s evolution has continued in a new century. Its age notwithstanding, Forest Home still has nearly twenty-five acres of open land left to develop, enough to last for at least another generation.

Although its future seems assured, it is Forest Home’s past that makes this hallowed ground so distinctive. In 1850, a group of Milwaukee Episcopalians decided to create a cemetery for the city. Their vision produced a burial ground that is part arboretum, part stonecutter’s museum, and all local history. What lies buried beneath the trees of Forest Home is the foundation of Milwaukee.

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Reprinted by Permission, Cream City Chronicles, by John Gurda.

Published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007 pages 149-151

If you are interested in learning more about Forest Home Cemetery a copy of John Gurda’s book Silent City is available at the cemetery office.

This book was published in 2000 for the 150th anniversary of the cemetery.

 

creamcity This new paperback edition of historian John Gurda’s classic collection of Milwaukee history shares lively stories about the people, the events, the landmarks, and the institutions that have made the “cream city” a unique American community. These stories, each featuring a historic photograph, represent the best of Gurda’s popular Sunday columns that have appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel since 1994. Find yourself transported back to another time, when the village of Milwaukee was home to fur trappers and traders. Follow the development of Milwaukee’s distinctive neighborhoods, its rise as a port city and industrial center, and its changing political climate. From singing mayors to summer festivals, from blueblood weddings to bloody labor disturbances, Cream City Chronicles offers a generous sampling of tales that express the true character of a hometown metropolis.

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