WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Time has nearly erased the inscriptions on the little half-moon gravestones, lined up like school desks. But a plain marker at their head tells their story: Children's Home.
The tiny headstones in a corner of the historic Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery are likely the resting places of girls and boys who spent their short lives at the Home for Friendless and Destitute Children, said Delaware historian Susan Mulchahey Chase. Founded in 1864, it was known simply as the "Children's Home," she said.
The sad little markers share the 25-acre burial ground on Delaware Avenue in Wilmington, with the grander monuments erected by captains of industry, signers of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. senators, war heroes, governors, judges and other notables of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even some of the society women who championed the Children's Home, which cared for "the deserted, the abused, the orphaned, the destitute," are resting nearby, based on a 1920 article in the Sunday Morning Star.
Historians call the cemetery a "Who's Who" of Wilmington. Famous figures buried here include: Wilmington's first mayor, Richard H. Bayard; Maj. Gen. Thomas A. Smyth, the last Union general to be killed in the Civil War; Dr. James Tilton, a Revolutionary War hero, member of the Continental Congress and surgeon general of the U.S. Army in the War of 1812; Col. Henry S. McComb, a Civil War soldier and Reconstruction railroad tycoon for whom McComb, Miss., is named; and Commodore Jacob Jones, hero of the War of 1812.
Now, the board of directors of this city of the dead — with its more than 21,000 eternal residents — want to engage the living in supporting what has been a city landmark since 1843. Not only is the cemetery offering a free walking tour April 26 that will be led by historian Laura Lee, but the board will hold its first event fundraiser in October with a 5K "Eternal Rest Run/Walk," according to cemetery board president James T. Chandler IV.
Like cemeteries throughout the country, the Proprietors of the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery is charged with running a business that requires money for administration, maintenance and infrastructure, according to Jack Porter, a cemetery board member. While the cemetery's endowment of about $500,000 spins off about $30,000 to $40,000 a year in income, the expenses cost about $100,000, he said. Other money comes from the sale of burial plots and contributions, but the total annual income is usually half of the total expenses, he said.
"All cemeteries are in the same boat," said Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. "The popular perception is: You dig holes, bury people and what's the big deal? But there's roads to maintain, irrigation, trees. It's more than digging holes and mowing grass. The maintenance never ends. The services a cemetery sells are forever."
Graveyards like the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery, which is not connected to a church or municipality, doesn't have a "parent" to turn to for money, Fells said. Walking tours and runs are good ways to engage the public.
"Cemeteries occupy an important place in any town or community. Opening it gets people involved and it becomes more meaningful," Fells said.
When Samuel Wollaston decided to create a cemetery on 10 acres of his Windsor Farm in 1843, the graveyard was considered outside of town. At the time, rural cemeteries were becoming popular in America, drawing on innovations in burial ground design in Europe, according to the National Parks Service.
The cemetery project proved so successful that approximately 200 lot holders got together in 1844 to form a company to expand and landscape the site. Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery Co. was formed with Willard Hall, the founder of WSFS, serving as its president.
After its incorporation, the cemetery hired engineer George Read Riddle to design the plots, paths, roads and hillside terraces, according to Chase. Cedars of Lebanon were imported from Palestine by James Canby about 1850, according to "Delaware. The American Guide Series," by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration.
The monuments were a matter of great public interest, with Wilmington's leading families, such as the Bayards and Harlans, building mausoleums. Other monuments feature common funerary art, such as draped urns and sculptures of angels pointing heavenward with an anchor in one hand. Chase said the angels represent faith holding firm to the anchor of hope. Another theme is a broken column or tree stump, which symbolizes untimely death.
Thanks to the cemetery, Delaware Avenue soon became the most fashionable district in the city, with mansions owned by the oldest and most prominent citizens. Families in their Sunday finest would stroll from the reservoir, which became the site of Rodney Square, to the cemetery, then wander through the burial grounds, according to an article in The News Journal.
In an odd twist, some of the graves pre-date the cemetery's development. When a new library was proposed for Rodney Square in 1917, the 18th-century First Presbyterian Church was moved to Park Drive and the remains in the old cemetery were relocated to the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery. As a result, the first president (or governor) of Delaware, Dr. John McKinly, who had been buried at First Presbyterian, now rests off Delaware Avenue, along with other notables, such as James Adams, Delaware's first printer.
One corner, known as Soldier's Graveplot, is the resting place of 121 Civil War soldiers who died of wounds or war-related illnesses at the old Delaware Hospital near 9th and Madison streets.
Then there's the not-so-famous, like the burials from the Children's Home. Poring through cemetery records, Lee also found a burial for a man's arm and another soul who died "Whilst under affections of the heart."
Lee's walking tour will focus not only on notable graves, but also common causes of death, curiosities unearthed during burial permit research, and marker and mausoleum styles and meanings.
While some of the glory of the once-powerful who rest at the cemetery has faded, there are some who still remember.
In October, WSFS employees honored the bank's founder, Willard Hall, gathering at his grave for a ceremony.
"They brought about 80 or 100 people and it was a beautiful day, I looked up to the skyline and I could see the new WSFS Building," Porter said. "I said: 'You folks better keep doing the good work because Mr. Hall is keeping an eye on you.'"
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com