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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Hubel

Unveiling the History and Elegance of Oak Hill Cemetery in Pontiac

Welcome to the Oak Hill Cemetery, a treasure trove nestled within the heart of Pontiac. This sacred ground, a veritable time capsule of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century architectural marvels, stands as a testament to the rich history and heritage of the area. Enshrined in the national register of historic places in 1989, the Oak Hill Cemetery offers a captivating journey through time, tracing its roots back to the year 1839.

The Origins of a Landmark

Pontiac's narrative begins in the early 1800s when the Pontiac Company settled the region in 1818 and 1819. By 1822, a piece of land just east of the burgeoning town was designated for a cemetery, church, and parsonage. In 1839, Captain Hervey Parke undertook the task of surveying the land and plotting the cemetery. Thus, the first phase of Oak Hill Cemetery was born, with its grounds becoming fully operational by 1841. Over the ensuing decades, the cemetery expanded its boundaries, reaching its present size around the turn of the century. The passage of time witnessed various improvements, including the construction of a replacement cemetery office and the addition of a magnificent gate and fencing.

A Sanctuary of Legacy

Perched on elevated terrain overlooking Pontiac's central business district, Oak Hill Cemetery's sprawling landscape is divided by University Drive and Paddock Street, intersecting at right angles. While the cemetery is segregated into three sections, it is the two older sections southwest of Paddock Street that are enshrined in the national register of historic places. These sections, established between 1839 and 1841, retain the undulating glacial terrain and pockets of hardwood trees, predominantly the oak trees from which the cemetery derives its name.

Art and Architecture Amidst Nature's Canopy

The cemetery stands as a canvas for late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century funerary art and architectural prowess. Among its many treasures, the Gothic memorial chapel, dating back to 1898, is a sight to behold. Crafted from Berea sandstone and crowned with a German-mottled tiled roof, the chapel boasts opalescent glass windows and bronze memorial tablets. Another awe-inspiring gem is the Gothic Revival-style mausoleum near the main entrance, a masterwork of native stone construction adorned with intricate carvings.

Nature's Embrace

The trees at Oak Hill Cemetery form an impressive canopy of hardwoods, including oaks, maples, and hickories. An astonishing variety of 26 tree species grace the landscape, with the majority boasting mature trunks ranging from twelve to forty inches in diameter. The cemetery is a haven of ancient trees, their branches and leaves casting dappled shadows across the grounds.

Guardians of Elegance

The cemetery's entrance is adorned with a wrought iron picket fence, a classic design that stands as a testament to the Late Victorian era's aesthetic. The architectural harmony extends to piers flanking the entrances, constructed from rock-face fieldstone blocks crowned with domed cement caps. Adjacent to University Drive, the cemetery office—a modest yet dignified structure—dates back to the turn of the century.

Whispers of History

Oak Hill Cemetery's southern expanse is home to the captivating Buckland Memorial Chapel. Completed in 1898, this English-style structure boasts opulent sandstone construction and bronze inscriptions memorializing significant figures. As you meander through the cemetery, you'll discover various architectural styles, from Gothic Revival to Romanesque, each monument speaking volumes about the individuals they commemorate.

A Tribute to Service

The cemetery pays homage to its early settlers and those who served their nation. Reverence for history resonates as you encounter the final resting places of veterans. Six veterans of the Revolutionary War and more than 27 veterans of the Civil War find their eternal abode here. Each headstone, each memorial, encapsulates the stories of lives lived, sacrifices made, and legacies left behind.

Oak Hill Cemetery is more than a burial ground; it's a living testament to the past. As you stroll beneath the canopy of ancient trees, observe the intricate architecture, and read the stories etched in stone, you're transported to a time when Pontiac's pioneers and visionaries walked its streets. Here, amidst history, art, and nature's embrace, the echoes of the past resonate, reminding us of the indelible mark left by those who came before us.

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