Where Westport Legends Lie

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 Betts, at the grave of a relative.

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.

A garden honoring Gene Takahashi sits on grounds the Korean War hero helped renovate.

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.

14 responses to “Where Westport Legends Lie

  1. Beth Sennett White

    This is a very special place. As kids, we played there and went ice skating on what we called “The Cemetery Pond”, which is down the hill. I believe the pond is now closed to the public. I am so pleased to read about the ongoing, wonderful care. My father is buried there.

  2. The Dude Abides

    Huh, I thought Herb Baldwin was buried in Arlington.

  3. Wendy Crowther

    Evergreen Ave. was once called Cemetery Rd. It started at Myrtle and stopped just beyond the cemetery. Later the road was extended eastward to Compo Rd. N. and was re-named.

    The pond was once part of what is now Winslow Park property. Owners of the land (and pond) included Richard Winslow, Stephen Alden (called Alden Pond then), and later, when the Westport Sanitarium owned the property, I believe that the piece with the pond was cleaved off to Dr. Ruland who was the head of the Sanitarium. All of these former owners would welcome skaters to the pond (and also welcomed those who liked fishing for trout that were stocked in the pond). The current owners of the Pond and the surrounding property have isolated it from the public and protect their privacy aggressively.

    Kudos to those who have improved the cemetery – they’ve done a fantastic job. It’s a great spot, and a small path behind the cemetery can connect you to Winslow Park if you’re interested in a lovely stroll.

    • Fascinating info — thanks, Wendy. I’m embarrassed I didn’t know this — especially because I live about 50 yards away from there!

    • Don’t forget…the land was alsoThe Baron’s property when he was the larges private land holder in Westport in the 1970s. Though he chose to be buried in the large mausoleum at WillowBrook Cemetery across town.

      When he owned it, before the RTM took it by eminent domaine making it a town park, he winked at anyone how wanted to go hiking (with or without dogs) on his land. No idea how he felt about ice skating on the pond.

  4. As a followup inquiry, Professor, the Saugatuck Congregational Church owns the property and maintains it. Do you have to be a member of said church to be buried there????

  5. Thanks for this wonderful glimpse into Westports Storied past…..and future…Preservation of history is Elwoods calling..again thanks for your stewardship Elwood.

    Charlie Taylor

  6. Yes, you do have to be a Saugatuck Congregational Church member or immediate family of a member of to be buried at Evergreen Cemetery. It’s a beautiful place – peaceful and serene – and is maintained by the church. But all are welcome to visit.

  7. Recently, in driving by, I noticed how spiffy (if one can use such a word about a cemetery) the markers and grounds there looked. And I wondered about the caretakers. NIce to learn a bit more about our town — thanks Wendy, Elwood, et al.

  8. Yeah, I stopped by too after learning that the YMCA’s steam is still closed (why don’t they do this renovation in mid-July??). Pretty cool place. Herb’s stone could use a little weedeating, however.

  9. We called it Ruland’s pond back in the 50’s and skated there as soon as it was frozen. Pick-up hockey games started early and continued on until the 5 o’clock whistle blew. Seems like there was sledding too – down the hill to one side and right across the pond. Good memories! Unfortunate they shut it down but probably wise on the owners part given today’s litigious environment.

  10. Thanks so much, Dan. Your words really brought out the essence of Thanks, Dan. Your words really brought out the essence of Evergreen Cemetery. I did want to add that while Elwood and Gene spearheaded the restoration it could not have been accomplished without the hard work of the church cemetery committee, namely Ilene Betts, Peggy Brady, Lee and Rose Jordan, Colleen Plantinga, Vi takahashi, and Orvis and Margaret Yingling.

  11. An all ’round amazing blog post