Perhaps Saugatuck Congregational Church members chuckled when they built a cemetery next to — of all places — Dead Man’s Brook.
Maybe they didn’t see the humor at all.
It’s hard to know what anyone was thinking back in 1836, when Evergreen Cemetery was dedicated just a few yards from downtown Westport where cattle grazed, crops grew, and ships sailed up the Saugatuck River.
But then — as now — Westporters died. And for 175 years, they’ve been buried in the small cemetery on Evergreen Avenue.
Last week, Elwood Betts took me on a tour. A native Westporter — born 85 years ago in a house on Imperial Avenue — he retired in 1989 after 42 years as General Electric engineer. He’s got 6 children and plenty of grandchildren, but his “baby” is the cemetery.
As a Saugatuck Church trustee, and overseer of the cemetery, he shepherded through a lengthy restoration project from 2002 to ’04 — and, last year, another clean-up after storms walloped the graves and grass.
Elwood — whose great-grand-uncle, Orin Elwood, lies there — ensures that the final resting place of famous Westporters like Ebenezer Jesup, Samuel Wakeman, Hereward Wake, Herb Baldwin, Ed Mitchell and various Sherwoods, Gorhams, Bradleys, Morehouses, Coleys, Wheelers and Whitneys, remains dignified and serene.
He’s had plenty of help — Rick Benson, Boy Scouts, Kowalsky Brothers and Gault, for example — but without Elwood, Evergreen Cemetery might look the way it did a decade ago. Dozens of stones were buried or broken. Monuments had toppled. Vandals did their share.
With Gene Takahashi — a Korean War hero — Elwood oversaw the removal of brush, overgrown pine trees and poison ivy; the righting, resurrection and repair of grave markers; the cleaning of marble; repairs to the iron fence railings, and landscaping of the entire area.
He and his crew did everything, it seems, except move the dead to make them more comfortable.
Since then, 3 new burial grounds have been added — including a crematory area. For a long time, there was no room for burial in the historic grounds. Now Westporters can once again rest in peace in Evergreen Cemetery.
On September 25, Saugatuck Congregational Church will hold a commemoration ceremony at the cemetery. This year marks the 175th anniversary of its founding, and the 150th of the start of the Civil War. Henry Richards — a 21-year-old who died at Lookout Mountain — is buried there.
On that Sunday, speakers will honor the cemetery. Coffee will be served. Westporters will wander through the grounds, gazing at familiar names and thinking back to a time when this downtown cemetery served a far different town.
“We’re praying for a nice day,” Elwood Betts say.
Thanks to him, every day in Evergreen Cemetery is exactly that.