Jul 13, 2023
BATAVIA — The Historic Batavia Cemetery — at which a Who’s Who of famous figures were laid to rest — has a bicentennial this year. It’s one that the Historic Batavia Cemetery Association plans to mark over the next few months with help from the Holland Land Office Museum.
The museum’s display is set up for a 7 p.m. July 12 opening.
“I know they’re going to be presenting a scholarship that night from the Holland Land Office there,” said Historic Batavia Cemetery Association President Sharon Burkel. “We just finished the exhibit. I’m very pleased with how it came out. I think it’s really great. It tells a lot about the history of the cemetery and about the people who are buried in here because there’s so many that are so important to the history of the city.”
THE CEMETERY’S SIGNIFICANCE
Those prominent cemetery guests include Dean Richmond, second president of the New York Central Railroad; Joseph Ellicott, the Holland Land Company resident agent who founded Batavia more than 220 years ago; Philomen Tracy, one of the few Confederate soldiers buried in the North; and Civil War soldiers the Hunt brothers.
“There’s 99 Civil War soldiers buried here,” she said. “There’s several American Revolutionary War soldiers. There’s several War of 1812 soldiers. I know there are some in here from World War I, World War II. We have a lot of veterans buried in here.” As to the 200th anniversary of the Harvester Avenue cemetery, Burkel said, “I think it’s quite an achievement that for 200 years, and especially since 1880, the association has maintained this beautiful site.”
“It’s like a park. People come through here. They bring their lunches here on their lunch hour,” she continued. “They walk their kids through here. They bike through here. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Batavia. I think a lot of people overlook it sometimes. Two hundred years is a long time for this to be here and to still be as well cared for as it is.”
Burkel has been associated with the association for 32 years as its president.
“I always thought it was a very beautiful spot. In 1990 began a project called Restoration ‘90,” she said. “It had fallen into disrepair and they wanted to get the community involved. I got involved through the Landmark Society of Western New York at that time.”
Burkel said she and the late Catherine Roth, co-founder of Landmark Society of Genesee County and a former member of City Council, bought plots at the cemetery so they could sit on the board.
“By the next year, I was president and I’ve been president ever since,” she said, laughing. “It’s such a worthwhile endeavor, I think, because there are so many wonderful stories of the people in here that sometimes get lost in time. Last year, we brought out the story of Watson Bulluck, who’s buried in the back of the cemetery.”
On June 19, there was a Juneteenth memorial held for Addy, a slave who was buried there after her death in 1857.
“These stories come up and we find that these are people who just get lost in time, but their stories are really important and very interesting,” she said. “These were adventurous people. A lot of these people in here came from Connecticut, Massachusetts. They came in wagons to live here. Some of them went further west, but a lot of them decided to stay. That’s what developed this area.”
Would she have had the resolve to make a journey like that in the 19th century? Burkel said she doesn’t know.
“It’s a question I ask a lot of people — ‘Would you do that?’”
The cemetery has lost several big, maple trees over the last few years.
“We lost five of the ash trees to the emerald ash borer,” she said. “This spring, we had the stumps ground out along the driveway. We’re going to try to raise money to start replanting some of the maple trees along the drive first. We’re always open to donations.”
The association is on a limited budget, its president explained.
“We have friends every year that donate money, but it’s not a lot,” she said. “We always need donations — money, volunteer time, whatever anyone wants to give.”
Joseph Ellicott, resident agent for The Holland Land Company, founded Batavia in 1801 and is buried in the Historic Batavia Cemetery. The Holland Land Company purchased 3.5 million acres from Robert Morris, “Financier of the American Revolution”, who acquired the land from the State of Massachusetts. The Seneca Nation gave up their rights to the land through the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree for a payment of $100,000. Ellicott sold over 3 million acres of land in Western New York, between Batavia and Pennsylvania and all the way to Lake Erie, Burkel recalled.
The first cemetery in Batavia was established in 1806 on the Tonawanda Creek near what is today South Lyon Street, according to the association’s information. After the site on the Tonawanda Creek was declared unsuitable because of high water problems, the Batavia Cemetery was relocated in 1823 to Cemetery Street, now Harvester Avenue, between the two railroads on Lot 43. The parcel was owned by St. James’ Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church, and was laid out by Ebenezer Mix into 88 plots.
Care of the cemetery was minimal, but in 1840 a fence was built around the area to protect the graves and shrubs from animals. Benjamin Pringle and Eli H. Fish added land located to the east. The cemetery continued to suffer from neglect until 1875, when aroused citizens raised money to repair the fence and improve the walks and drives.
In 1880, a number of lot owners organized under the State Laws and formed the Batavia Cemetery Association, a not-for-profit corporation. The Association maintains and preserves this most beautiful and historic site today.
In the early 1990s, when the cemetery fell on hard times, much brush was hauled out, the wrought iron fence was rebuilt and repaired, more than 200 stones were reset and a new sign designed. Over the succeeding years, more than 50 trees were planted in the James Tyler Roth Memorial Arboretum, the Greek revival building was reroofed and repainted, and the front columns were replaced with columns from the razed Christian Science Church on Main Street in Batavia.
In 1999, after an extensive site review by architect John Bero, the Richmond mausoleum was cleaned and repointed. The stained-glass window in the mausoleum, which had been destroyed by vandals in the late 20th century, was replaced by Valerie O’Hara of Pike Stained Glass Studios and rededicated on Aug. 27, 2016, the 150th anniversary of Dean Richmond’s death. In 2021, the steps were reset and repointed.
Batavia Cemetery was designated the first historic site by the newly established City of Batavia Historic Preservation Commission in 1996, and was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places in 2002. A Historic Landscape Award was received from the Landmark Society of Western New York in 1998.
The Historic Batavia Cemetery is a destination for cultural heritage tourism, landscape, history, genealogy, art, architecture and much more.
THE CEMETERY EXHIBIT AND ‘TEA AND SPIRITS’
There will be a kickoff at 7 p.m. July 12, Holland Land Office Museum Executive Director Ryan Duffy said.
“People can come in and check out the exhibit a little bit after hours. We’ll be having a few little, ceremonial things going on with that to open up the exhibit, officially, to everyone,” he said. “You can start to see it next week, actually. It will be up for several months.”
People can come to the museum starting July 5 to see the exhibit, he said.
“It’ll be up for several months. We’re doing this in coordination with the Historic Batavia Cemetery Association, who has provided a good number of the artifacts you’ll see at the exhibit,” Duffy said. “We supplemented that with other pieces from the collection of the museum.”
The museum will also host three “Tea and Spirits” to benefit the Historic Batavia Cemetery. These events will be at 2 p.m. on July 23, Aug. 20 and Sept. 17.
The cemetery residents people can “chat” with include:
n July 23: Joseph Ellicott, Rachel Ellicott Evans and William Morgan.
n Aug. 20: Dean and Mary Richmond, Eli Fish.
n Sept. 17: Albert Brisbane, Gen. John Martindale, Rev. John Yates.
Tickets are $25 for the public and $20 for museum members. They may be bought at the museum or by calling (585) 343-4727. Space for the events is limited.