Beneath a luscious canopy of leaves, gravestones at the Olathe Memorial Cemetery weave a tale of American history.
Early pioneers, Kansas governors, founders of Olathe, and even President Barack Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather are buried in the sprawling green lawn.
Speckled among the aging headstones are rare and unique trees, such as the Chinese Fringe, which blooms with spectacular white flowers, and the Dawn Redwood, a towering relative of the famous giant redwoods found in California.
This year, during the site’s 150th anniversary, the cemetery’s history and the trees surrounding it are being brought to the public’s attention.
The Kansas State Historic Society recently awarded Olathe an $18,000 grant to guide in the process of designating the cemetery as a historic district.
The money will be used to secure a preservation consultant who will complete a historic survey, which could lead to a National Register nomination. Everything from landscape architecture to the significance of the people buried there will be taken into consideration.
If completed, the Olathe Memorial Cemetery would be the first such designated cemetery in Kansas.
“This is a big deal,” said Bob Courtney, president of the Olathe Historical Society. “Historical tourism is huge — people take day trips to historically significant places. It could become an important destination.”
The cemetery began with the burial of Elvira Beckwith. Her brother, Watts Beckwith, donated the 10 acres of land for the original cemetery in 1865.
Meanwhile, the cemetery’s leafy history is coming together as the Olathe Garden and Civic Club is working diligently on a tree tour at the location.
Bob’s wife, Lila, is helping out with that project.
Along with other members of the Tree Tour Committee, Lila Courtney is working with Rick Spurgeon, the Olathe city arborist.
For the past year, they have been researching trees in the cemetery, focusing on the most unusual and the most historic.
While the garden and civic club has been offering tree tours of the city for decades, it was Spurgeon who suggested that the cemetery was worthy of its own tour.
Since he became the city arborist 33 years ago, he has helped add variety to the cemetery, bringing in tree species native to Asia and Europe.
“The cemetery was a good chance to showcase some really interesting trees,” Spurgeon said. “There are no ballfields or busy streets or sewer lines here. A wide variety of trees can flourish undisturbed on this land.”
The self-guided tour, set to be ready by spring, will feature an informational brochure, plaques by specific trees, offering the common and Latin names, and also, for smartphone savvy tourists, QR tags offering more details and photos.
“We want to introduce new trees to people and show them they don’t have to plant the same standard oak and maple ones over and over again,” Lila Courtney said. “Also, walking around the cemetery makes for a pleasant afternoon stroll.”
She hopes the tour will attract school groups and Scouts as well.
“Trees add to the beauty and personal enjoyment of the outdoors,” Lila Courtney said. “They’re an important part of history because they saw what happened throughout the years.”
Spurgeon agrees every tree in the cemetery has a story to tell. Some of the trees have history in their name. The wood from shingle oak trees, for example, was used for shingles on early pioneers’ cabins.
Other trees have history hidden deep inside them. Spurgeon recalls when one old massive tree uprooted during a wind storm. When it fell over, an 1880s gravestone peaked from underneath.
He guesses a family planted the tree next to the grave as a remembrance and over the years, the tree took on a life of its own.
There are 250 trees in the Olathe cemetery, with around 30 of them being featured in the tour.
Trees shouldn’t be taken for granted, Spurgeon said. Up until the 1860s, there were barely any trees in Olathe, as the area was mostly burned prairie. When settlers moved in, they planted trees and kept them alive.
“Trees aren’t static,” Spurgeon said. “They grow larger and gain character and change with the years. It’s important to replace and take care of your trees, because they’re not maintenance-free, they’re living organisms. Trees are like people in the cemetery — they move on.”
The trees in the Olathe Memorial Cemetery will be an important part of the application process for the historic district nomination. After all, Bob Courtney said, they’re just as much a part of the cemetery’s historical significance as the gravestones themselves.
“The possibility of a historic district, the tree tour, these are such neat projects,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to everything coming together.”
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