There is a lot of history buried at Oakdale Cemetery-and some of it above the ground. On Saturday, Oakdale offers the Music & Mausoleum tour at 2:00pm, with a focus on 8 structures and the stories behind them-accompanied by a violinist, flutist, harpist, guitarist, and chorus.
Ed Turberg: I am the Secretary of the Friends of Oakdale Cemetery. I'm also a tour guide, and we're having a tour of Oakdale Cemetery on Saturday, May 19th, from 2:00 to 4:00 PM visiting several mausoleums that we have in the cemetery. We're going to be accompanied by a group of musicians, and it's the second time we've done this. The first time we had 106 people show up. So, we're sort of excited that people want to visit Oakdale Cemetery on a weekend, and also they like to hear music because the idea was that the cemetery was supposed to be a public space. We didn't have a central park in the city.
I had come across a comment by somebody who wrote to the Wilmington Star who said, "Our citizens should feel pride in our cemeteries, especially Oakdale, which is regarded as one of the handsomest south of Baltimore. And yet, very few visitors to our city are even informed of this lovely spot or urge to take a look at it."
And that was written on September 17th, 1880. So, now many years later, we are trying to get people to realize that this is a cemetery for people and their families to visit, appreciate the trees and the flowering plants, and the ancestors.
Gina Gambony: It was a green space for the city of Wilmington, right?
Ed: Yes, it was. When it was opened in 1852, that was the country.
Gina: That was the country?
Ed: Yes. The end of the city was 13th Street. So, the area was selected because it sort of hilly. When you think of Wilmington, you think of flat area - except when you get down to the river you had to go down a couple of hills. But, at Oakdale Cemetery, you've got these natural hillocks, and it's surrounded by the creek that flows into the Cape Fear River. So, the east and north part of the cemetery are boarded by the creek.
Gina: What kind of mausoleums will people visit on this little tour?
Ed: We're going to visit eight of them, and each one has sort of a different architectural character. The first one we'll say is the Vollers Mausoleum, and it’s sort of an arts and crafts style building.
One of the unusual features of it is it's rectangular. It's not square. It's built out of stone, and when you go up to it, you'll see above a carvings of lilies - which are purity and long life -across the top of the structure. If you peek in the window of the door - because the door is glass - you'll see at the back of the mausoleum a beautiful angel. That is one of the few remarkable, artistic pieces that we have to display in the cemetery. We go from there to the Pembroke Jones Mausoleum which was built for the man who his summer home was Airlie - which is now Airlie Gardens out near the beach.
His son in law was John Russel Pope who was an architect from New York whose claim to fame are the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as well as the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Then, we go to the Moran Mausoleum which is nearby, and that was designed by James F. Post, a local architect and builder of Wilmington.
Mr. Moran was a Methodist minister. He was so popular with his congregation and friends that, when he died and was buried, they wanted to be able to have the top of the grave openable. So, people could glance in and see him resting. That's an old English and European custom. Famous people, kings and people of that sort were buried in these sarcophagi that they were either glassed in, or it could open it up.
Over a period of time - I think it was the Methodists said - they didn't like that idea. So, they sealed the coffin. But, it's the only mausoleum that doesn't have a door. It has a gate. The idea was somebody could go there, open the gate, and go into the mausoleum and see the burial.
Then, we're going to see the Kenan Memorial. The Kenans are famous for all their philanthropy across North Carolina and elsewhere. Graham Kenan and his wife Sarah Graham Kenan are buried in what I call a Sugar Shack. It's a square, white, Carrére marble mausoleum that stands all by itself at one end of the cemetery. They had their good friends, architects from New York, Carérre and Hastings design that mausoleum.
Carérre and Hastings’ claim to fame today, I guess, is the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in New York City. But, they also did mansions for wealthy people. They also designed the Kenan Memorial Fountain that stands at the corner of Fifth and Market Streets.
Then, we go on and see two more mausoleums the Heyer and the Joyner Mausoleums which are sort of plain, square stone structures with stained glass windows in them. One of them, the Heyer Mausoleum, has sort of an art deco flower stained glass window in it, and the Joyner has just sort of a modern glass feature. The Joyner is one of the more recent mausoleums because that was built in 1932 and recently been restored. So, people will see in the Heyer and the Joyner Mausoleums, which are very close together, they'll see sort of a mausoleum that wants to be renovated or have repairs done and the Joyner Mausoleum which has been restored.
Then, the last one we see is the Thomas Right Mausoleum, and it's not anything like all the others. It's actually a series of enclosed stacked coffins within a marble enclosures. It's sort of a feature that became popular probably after World War II. People neither had the money nor the desire to build these fancy places for eternity. So, they were simply wanted to be buried above ground. So, the simplest thing to do was do an enclosure where the caskets are enclosed within a structure. We've got a number of those in Oakdale Cemetery. But, since we're sort of focusing on that more Classical Era connected with music, that we featured the other ones.
One of the most important ones, and I don't know why I forget, within Oakdale Cemetery is Hebrew Cemetery. It's a fenced in area. Within that is the only mausoleum in the Hebrew Section, and that is for Meyer, and his last name was Bear. He was a Wilmington merchant, a very successful merchant. A lot of people don't understand, but there was really no anti-Semitism in Wilmington because a lot of these people came up from - Jewish people - came up from Charleston. They established businesses, groceries and dry goods, things of that sort. They became part of the economic and the social life of Wilmington - and the Bear family was among those people.
So, Mr. Bear dies, and they build a mausoleum for him in this huge granite, rock structure that looks like it might be an early Medieval building. It's very difficult to recognize as you're walking through the cemetery because it's sort of in the corner of the Hebrew plot. Everybody goes there reading all the inscriptions that are written in Hebrew. But, to me the interesting thing is, Meyer Bear's mausoleum is almost exactly like the Murchison Mausoleum - the David Murchison Mausoleum - nearer to the Vollers Burial. The two are so similar except there's, I believe, there's a cross on the Murchison Mausoleum, and there isn't on Meyer Bear's. But, they're very similar.
I don't take people to see the Murchison Mausoleum because you have to go through an unpaved area, and there are a lot of little roots that grow along there. I figure we're not going to trespass in that - and I'm going to be the one who falls. So, on the way from the Moran to the Heyer and Joyner plots, we pass the Bear. We can talk about the history of the Jewish people in Wilmington and also the fact that they have their own cemetery within Oakdale Cemetery.
Ed: When we go to each site, the musicians will be playing. Last time, they were sort of playing in the background. But, since it's Music and Mausoleums, we think maybe this time they need to have a little more forward experience. So, we're going to go to various sites and listen to the musicians play. Then, I'll tell a little bit about the history and the significance of each of the mausoleums.
We hadn't practiced before, but now we have sort of. This is going to be the second show. So, I think we know a little more about how to present all this to the public. They were very excited. Nobody left early. We have a harpist, a flutist, a guitarist, violinist, and a small choral group. It's called Coastal Blend.
Gina: Do you know what kind of music they'll be playing at all?
Ed: It's sort of both classical music and folk music - 19th and early 20th century.
Gina: This is scheduled for 2:00 on Saturday.
Ed: 2:00 to 4:00.
Gina: And if it rains?
Ed: Eric will make the decision as to whether to hold it or not. I don't know what the weather report is. They've been saying it supposed to rain and thunderstorm all this week, and I have yet to see it. My grass is drying up.
Gina: [laughs] So, I'm just curious. If it isn't able to happen on Saturday, do you think you'll be able to reschedule this particular walk?
Ed: I think we want to because it turned out to be very popular. It's one of the times that we've been able to advertise Oakdale Cemetery as not a graveyard but a public park. I think that's very important. As that man in 1880 said that was sort of the intent. Too few people recognize that.
Gina: It's just a lovely place to visit.
Ed: It is! I'm very fortunate. I live two blocks from Oakdale Cemetery. My wife, just after we bought our house, we bought a plot in Oakdale. So, we know where we're going.
Gina: Right - did you get a mausoleum?
Ed: No. I had investigated the cost of mausoleums, and they could cost up to a million dollars.
Gina: Holy Moly.
Ed: So, I'd rather donate it to a thing like a radio station.
Gina: Hey, that's a great idea!
Ed: Or, something like that.
Gina: Okay. So, I have enough for the interview. Any other thoughts you'd like to add?
Ed: They have volunteers from the Oakdale Company and the Friends of Oakdale Cemetery who volunteer to greet people, sell tickets. We've got some wonderful a note cards with photographs of various angels and other features that you'll see in Oakdale Cemetery for sale at the gate. We think that, as people are coming to the event, that the Coastal Blend people will be there singing to entertain. So, you're not just standing around waiting for everybody to get started.
Ed: It's an easy walk through. Some people may think that, "Oh, it's gonna be too difficult to walk around that place. It seems to be
so, such a long trip." But, there are walls so you can sit on. It's very convenient. It's almost as if somebody way back had said, "People are going to come through here, and they want to sit down."
Ed: So, they're stopping places. We have our golf cart that can hold a couple of people if people need to have some kind of transportation from here and there. But, the whole trip has been organized that it sort of has a natural flow. So, you're not going too far before you stop. Then you're there for a bit, and then you'd go onto the next site.
Gina: Can you tell me how long ago was it that Oakdale Cemetery was established?
Ed: It was established in 1852. I believe the first burial was in 1854. It was a little Annie, the daughter of Dr. DeRosset. The DeRossets live in what is now the City Club at Second and Dock Streets.
Gina: So, was she a baby?
Ed: A young child. That plot is right there in the circle around Pembrook Jones' graveyard. Also, in that area is the burial of Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who was a confederate spy, and also of Henry Bacon, who was an architect - New York and Wilmington - architect, whose claim to fame is the Lincoln Memorial in Washington., DC.
Right there in that circle we have two architects represented - Henry Bake, the architect of Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and John Russel Pope who designed his father-in-law's mausoleum right there. He did the Jefferson Memorial. So, talk about a claim to fame.
Gina: So, this kind of tour is for people who will appreciate the history - the local history and just the history of - a cemetery and of a green space, and who like to hear the music too.
Ed: Exactly. Oakdale Cemetery was one of the early quote "rural cemeteries." The first was in Cambridge, Massachusetts outside of Boston in 1835. Here in 1852, Wilmington is opening up a cemetery of this sort. A number of families in Wilmington who owned the plots in St. James Graveyard downtown had their ancestors moved to the new plots in Oakdale Cemetery because they wanted everybody to gather.
The reason that the cemetery or the graveyard at St. James Episcopal Church was closed was it was decided that it was unsanitary to have burials in a downtown, populated area. Well, now you'd go up to Fifteenth Street and go into Oakdale Cemetery, and you say, "Rural?"
Gina: But it was - that was the end of town.
Ed: It was, yes, it was. They have tours of World War I burials. Recently, they had a horticultural tour - which is just fascinating because Oakdale Cemetery is a garden. It's a wonderful space that the people will go and see the flowers and photograph the birds and just walk around and enjoy a peaceful area because, as soon as you walk into the gates, you're in a different world. It's very, very special.
Gina: Also, I know you're holding some of these Flashlight Tours.
Ed: Yes. They're going to be having two of them. They've done a Yellow Fever Tour because we have a whole Yellow Fever section. The Flashlight Tours are very interesting because you have the leader take you through. You're going through the dark and, all of a sudden, she'll illuminate a gravestone and tell about the person that's there. Everything else falls away into the darkness, and you're just focused on that particular burial and that particular person. So, it's really exciting. You go in groups - and I believe they have these luminaries lighting the path - so you don't get lost.
I do historic house research. If you go downtown and you see these plaques on houses, I do the research for those. I tell people now, whether you're of an old family or not, you have now bought a home that was built and owned by a historic family. They are buried in Oakdale cemetery. Now that you have bought this house, you have bought ancestors. They're your ancestors by purchase, and you should go visit their plots. Bring flowers, have a picnic, do something, but don't leave them alone.
The idea was participation by families, and you're now part of the inherited family.
Gina: That's great.
Ed: And people are doing that.
Well, Eric Kozen said that they seem to be getting more and more people coming in to Oakdale cemetery, especially on weekends, just to see it because they've heard about it. They heard the publicity about tours and things of that sort, and now this is a corner of Wilmington that they didn't know before. I think they like it.
Gina: It's a beautiful place.
Ed: Yeah, my wife and I believe this is a place to die for.