Cemeteries are a ‘who’s who’ of Wichita history

More than 27,000 people are buried at Maple Grove, which is still an active cemetery.
More than 27,000 people are buried at Maple Grove, which is still an active cemetery. The Wichita Eagle

Not long ago, Bill Pennington received a request from someone in Britain for detailed directions to the grave of Sidney Toler at Highland Cemetery.

“He’s coming from Great Britain to Wichita just to see where Sidney Toler is buried,” Pennington said. “He’s a fan of the old movies and wants to see his grave.”

Toler played the title role of the Chinese-American detective in the “Charlie Chan” series of movies filmed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The cinephile tracked down Pennington through Find A Grave, a free website started in 1995 when its founder couldn’t find a website to aid his hobby of visiting the graves of famous people.

FindAGrave.com now contains records for more than 145 million people – famous and regular folk – from around the world, submitted by contributors like Pennington, an amateur genealogist and historian in Wichita.

Pennington became interested in genealogy 40 years ago and for decades has worked on an ongoing project to create a cemetery database covering the Wichita area. When Find A Grave came along, he started submitting there, too, where he has personally added 127,000 records.

Memorial Day weekend is a popular time to explore the history, architecture, artistry, symbolism and flora found in local cemeteries.

I consider our cemeteries outdoor museums.

Eric Cale, director of Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum

“I consider our cemeteries outdoor museums,” said Eric Cale, who worked at Maple Grove Cemetery from 1981 to 2004 and now is museum director at Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. “There is so much that our cemeteries have to offer. For example: Maple Grove and Highland’s records go back to 1870. The state of Kansas didn’t begin collecting death records until 1911.”

While there are no official tours of Wichita cemeteries and no brochures to lead the way, information on the occupants of several of the city’s oldest burial grounds is available at FindAGrave.com. Searching by cemetery gives viewers a link to “famous interments” that includes records submitted by users, although the website states: “Please don’t confuse importance with fame. Every one of your ancestors is important, and every veteran deserves to be remembered and honored – but that does not mean that they are ‘famous.’ An individual is more likely to be designated as ‘famous’ on the Find A Grave site if he or she is well known outside of his or her local community.”

We talked to community volunteers at three of the oldest spots: Highland Cemetery and Maple Grove, which are across the street from each other at 10th and Hillside, and the Old Mission Mausoleum, which sits in Old Mission Wichita Park Cemetery near 21st and Hillside.

Highland Cemetery

Barb Myers found Pennington’s database useful in 2014 when she started researching the area’s earliest settlers as part of her work toward a graduate degree in local and community history at Wichita State University. Her research naturally led to Highland Cemetery, which formed in 1868, two years before Wichita was officially incorporated. Wichita Cemetery Co. sold the final plots at Highland in 1982 and abandoned it that year. Oversight now belongs to the city of Wichita.

“I’m interested in how we all got here,” Myers said. “We can get lessons in civics, economics and diversity, all from this cemetery.”

Memorial Day is one of the few times the mausoleum at Highland Cemetery is open to the public. Built in 1915, it is the final resting place for a number of Wichita’s early business leaders, including Harry Dockum, L.W. Clapp, Ben Eaton and Margaret Brown Innes.

More than 17,000 people are buried at Highland Cemetery, and only five have been submitted as “famous” on Find A Grave. A governor and 13 Wichita mayors are buried here, including the city’s first, Edwin Bird Allen, and the first African-American mayor, A. Price Woodard Jr. Some of the most asked-about markers, Myers said, are those for trapper and trader William “Buffalo Bill” Mathewson and the actor Toler.

There are many recognizable names on the markers at Highland Cemetery – names you’ll see at Old Cowtown Museum, on buildings in downtown Wichita or on streets and parks throughout the city.

Myers said she is just as interested in the stories of the people who aren’t in history books. She enjoys taking the names from Pennington’s database, or ones she finds while visiting the cemetery, and researching their stories.

She’s found the marker for Christian Kimmerle, who owned the first tombstone business in the area, and Eliza Flanders Day, great-grandmother of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

She shares many of the stories she’s uncovered during tours at Highland Cemetery that she organizes a couple of times a year. Her first one in 2014 drew about a dozen people; her most recent one in April attracted 100. Most heard about the tour on a Facebook page she administers that has nearly 8,000 followers: Wichita History From My Perspective. The tours are free and require walking. She said her next tour likely will be in September.

Maple Grove Cemetery

Across Hillside Street is Maple Grove Cemetery, tied with Calvary Cemetery as the second oldest in Wichita. It was founded in 1888 by A.A. Hyde, businessman and inventor of Mentholatum, and is a nonprofit and non-sectarian cemetery. It sits on nearly 60 acres and is the only garden or rural-style cemetery in the city.

The cemetery’s website (MapleGroveCemetery.org) has an informative history section and a list of notables buried here. Find A Grave lists two Kansas governors and two Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, as well as several U.S. congressmen and Wichita mayors.

There are several family mausoleums on the property and the first veterans memorial built in Sedgwick County: the Union Veterans Memorial, dedicated on Memorial Day 1897 and rededicated in 2011.

“Between us and Highland, you have 1,000 Union veterans of the Civil War buried here,” said Hal George, a volunteer whose father, Miles George, was superintendent of Maple Grove from 1940 to 1987.

More than 27,000 people are buried at Maple Grove, which is still an active cemetery, and George said the staff and volunteers learn new information about them every year, either through genealogical visits or by simply looking down and finally noticing a marker.

“That’s how we found out about Sol Butler and his sisters,” George said, explaining that he was walking a familiar route through the cemetery a few years ago when he saw the words “Olympic Champion” on the marker of Solomon Butler. He is buried between two sisters, one of which has a marker noting she was a registered nurse, and near his mother and brother.

George was intrigued enough to do more research and found that Sol Butler played high school sports in Hutchinson and starred in football, track and field, baseball and basketball from 1915-19 at what is now the University of Dubuque in Iowa. He is credited with being the first black athlete in U.S. history to quarterback for four straight years at an otherwise all-white school. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1920 and was the favorite to win the long jump but pulled a hamstring on his first jump and finished seventh.

George encourages Wichitans – new or long-time residents – to get out and explore cemeteries.

“Maple Grove is a place to remember 27,000 people who have gone before us. Sometimes you can see in the artwork or in the inscriptions what was important to them,” George said. Sometimes, he added, you’ll notice trends. “Thirty of our first 100 adult burials were immigrants. This tells people how important immigrants were in getting this part of the country going,” he said.

Maple Grove’s office is typically open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and for several hours on Saturday. Tours can be arranged with notice.

Old Mission Mausoleum

David Stuart has lived his entire life in Wichita. He attended Wichita State University and worked for the public school system for 30 years. He drove by Old Mission Wichita Park Cemetery many times and, like most people, he says, “You don’t look at it unless you have to go there.”

Not long after retiring he was driving by and noticed a sign that said space was available. He stopped in and got a tour. When he saw the Old Mission Mausoleum, he asked about its history and was surprised that nobody at the cemetery knew details. So he started researching and now is considered the unofficial volunteer caretaker and historian.

There are a lot of amazing people in there. It’s a who’s who of Wichita.

David Stuart, volunteer caretaker and historian of Old Mission Mausoleum

“There are a lot of amazing people in there. It’s a who’s who of Wichita,” said Stuart, 76. “Once the Murdocks bought into it, that was the turning point for other movers and shakers to buy into it.”

The family Stuart is referring to is that of Marshall Murdock, founder of The Wichita Eagle, who was first interred at Highland then moved to the Old Mission Mausoleum. There are more than 2,500 people buried in the mausoleum, which is sold out, including families known for aviation (Beech), outdoor equipment (Coleman) and oil (Vickers). There are also senators, veterans, a four-star general and the 1926 Miss America, Norma Des Cygne Smallwood Bruce.

His research on the occupants and the building led Stuart on a multi-year effort that concluded in 2009 with getting the mausoleum placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance as a well-preserved and highly intact Mediterranean Revival-style mausoleum.

The mausoleum was built in four stages over 36 years, from 1918 to 1954, with the first unit opening in 1920. The four units are interconnected surrounding a central courtyard. Its red clay tile roof distinguishes it from other mausoleums on the property. While the mausoleum takes up an acre on the same property as the Old Mission Wichita Park Cemetery, the building and land were turned over to the city of Wichita. It is open to the public daily.