Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mount Olivet History

This article was in the Frederick News Post last week. It is a story about Mount Olivet Cemetery where Chrissy is buried. I thought it was interesting history and something she would have liked...

Every morning, as the dawn's early light reaches the bronze statue of Francis Scott Key, Ronald Pearcey steps down from his porch and opens the iron gate to Frederick's 156 year-old Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Pearcey has lived and worked at the cemetery for nearly 43 years.

He oversees a great deal of American history, regularly meeting Civil War buffs, students and tourists, patiently answering questions about those enshrined. When he can find time, Pearcey still researches old diaries trying to identify the remains of hundreds of unknown Confederate soldiers brought from the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam, South Mountain and Monocacy.

The cemetery sits on 150 acres atop the city's highest pla-teau and holds the remains of more than 40,000 persons. But Mount Olivet also continues to function and serve area residents; in fact, two new mausoleums broke ground in April and 35 acres remain available for burials.

Not all the significant people, services or memorable events here are from the 19th century, either. There have been other historical footnotes, significant local stories, personal tragedies and even one recent small miracle born at Mount Olivet

"It keeps you pretty busy," said Pearcey, who started in 1966 after a lead from the county unemployment agency. He took over as superintendent in 1983 from Bob Kline, who himself worked at the cemetary for 48 years.

Pearcey isn't the only long-tenured employee. His staff of 18 includes office manager Austin Drury, who started in 1979. Jesse Shank, cemetery foreman since 1962, manages the actual grave-digging with Tyrone Hurley, who has been at the cemetery for 25 years. Hurley's sisters, Polly and Jeannie, have taken care of the flowers and shrubbery for more than two decades.

In a near-tragedy last month, Shank's son Jamie, who works on the grounds, severed his right arm in a wood-chipper accident. Incredibly, it was successfully re-attached and something close to a full recovery is expected.

"It's amazing," Pearcey said. "We did everything right and he had a great doctor. He's due back to work real soon. It's hard to believe anything good could come out of that, but I think something might if he shares his story."

In 1852, four downtown congregations, Evangelical Lutheran, All Saints Protestant Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal and the "English" Presbyterian Church raised $10,000 for the land then called "Barrack's Hill" -- because of the nearby Hessian barracks. A decade later, the bodies of 408 unknown Confederate soldiers were brought here from western Maryland and south central Pennsylvania. Other bodies, too, of men who died at the numerous Frederick hospitals.

Pearcey can recount their journey and how they came to Mount Olivet, as well as Francis Scott Key's saga. The lawyer, poet and author of The Star Spangled Banner was born in Frederick in 1779.

When Key, for example, died of pneumonia in 1843 at his daughter Elizabeth Howard's home in Baltimore, he was initially interred there in Old Saint Paul's Cemetery. In 1866, his body was relocated to Mount Olivet. In 1898, the huge monument where he and his wife lay was erected.

"He was born here and, supposedly, always had said he wanted to be buried in Frederick overlooking the mountains," Pearcey said.

Local patriot Barbara Fritchie is nearby. A friend of Key's, she was 96 when she famously waved a Union flag at Stonewall Jackson's Confederate troops in 1862, daring them to "Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country's flag."

Thomas Johnson, Maryland's first governor, U.S. Supreme Court justice and delegate to the Continental Congress, and James Cooper, a Union general and senator from Pennsylvania, are buried at the cemetery, too.

On a different historical note, Mount Olivet was a strictly segregated "white only" cemetery until 1954, Pearcey said. "Written into the by-laws."

Pearcey explained that in the 1940s a white businessman and farm owner named R. Rush Lewis sued Mount Olivet, a community-owned non-profit, in order to have his children's beloved "colored" nanny, Bird Smith, buried at his family's site.

"People apparently had mixed-feelings about it at the time he brought the suit, but because it was in the bylaws it held up in court," Pearcey said. "She was buried on their farm."

Four decades later, in 1986, the farm was sold to a motel chain which asked if Mount Olivet could remove the casket.

Smith was brought to the cemetery and buried in a small service.

"Rush Lewis' daughter Elizabeth Peters was still alive and lived in a house downtown on Court Street," Pearcey said. "The day of the service, it was pouring rain and I called and asked her if she wanted to come. She was very elderly, 87 years old, but she said she wanted to. So, I went and picked her up and held a big umbrella over her the whole time.

"I think finally getting to see her buried where she was supposed to be buried brought her some peace."

The largest service that Pearcey could remember was in 1988 for a 16-year-old Brunswick High School baseball player named Richard Allen Maceron, who died of an illness. Pearcey believes it was leukemia.

"It was February and it was a sunny day, wasn't cold at all," he said. "Long after the service was over, people were coming, the procession backed up all the way to Brunswick. The truck stop across I-70 was filled with cars."

"I knew him from baseball, my son played baseball then and he was just a popular, well-liked kid," Pearcey said. "All the kids from the high school came, walking single-file by casket."

Pearcey's own sons, Jeremy and David, now 37 and 36, respectively, worked at the cemetery growing up, cutting the grass, trimming and weeding. Tragically, their mother, Kathy Pearcey, Ronald's first wife, died in 1995 from complications related to diabetes and rests at cemetery.

Shortly after Maceron's funeral, another baseball story began, albeit, a much happier one, directly across the street from Mount Olivet. The minor league Frederick Keys moved into the new Harry Grove Stadium.

Not coincendentally it turns out, the two dozen plots closest to the ballpark, space that had been sitting idle for years, sold immediately, Pearcey said. Longtime American Legion baseball coach Harold E. "Sonny" Blank, whose teams played on the previous field, is buried within a good throw of the ticket office. He even has a baseball diamond and batter on his tombstone -- designed by Pearcey.

"You know, they play the national anthem before every game and Francis Scott Key is buried less than a quarter mile from the stadium," Pearcey said. "And no other place can say that.

"The other thing, if you notice, is that his right hand on the top of the statute, which was built in 1898, points exactly to where the home plate sits. I think that's kind of interesting."

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