KALKASKA — The Township of Rapid River is seeking historical markers at two of its cemeteries after residents expressed interest in the township commemorating its history.
Laura Parzych has lived in Kalkaska for 55 years. She enjoys long walks in cemeteries and describes herself as a history buff.
Parzych recently became interested in Westwood Cemetery, which is one of the oldest cemeteries in Kalkaska County, where some of the area’s earliest settlers are buried. She was interested in restoring some of the oldest graves that have endured decades of seasons in Michigan and finding a way to put names on some of the unmarked graves.
Parzych began scouring the Kalkaska library archives to find out more. This led her to Maple Grove Cemetery, where she learned that Grace Gilbert, a local Kalkaska legend and one of the first bearded ladies in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is buried.
“I went to Maple Grove and found that Grace Gilbert, the red-haired woman with the beard, was there, with her family, her husband, her mother, her father,” Parzych said. “I was kind of like, ‘Wow, this is really historical stuff. Why don’t they preserve it?’
If these cemeteries were marked as historic sites, they could spark more interest in local history from locals and tourists, Parzych said. As things stand, she feels they are falling into oblivion and the history they hold is in danger of being forgotten.
“Westwood (Cemetery) is at the end of a dead end road next to an old dump. People don’t even know it exists there,” Parzych said. “If it’s marked, they know it. People who might be descendants of these (people) would finally know where they stand.
At a Rapid River Township commission meeting a few months ago, Parzych came up with a proposal that included dollar amounts for everything, which she shared during public comments.
The application fee for a Michigan State Historic Marker is $250 each, or $500 for both cemeteries. In total, with the application fee and a sign in each cemetery, depending on the types of signs, it would cost from $5,100 to $9,800. Application fees are refunded if the application is rejected by the advisory board, according to the Michigan History Center.
Phyllis Senske is another township resident interested in seeing the township request a historical marker from cemeteries. She pitched the idea to the township commission before Parzych, and she recently partnered with Parzych to do some of the research needed for a bid.
For Senske, marking these historic sites would show respect for the dead buried there.
“It’s important for the township to take care of the historic sites in the city,” Senske said.
Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center, said applicants for historical markers need strong primary documents to demonstrate the significance of the site they hope to mark. The Michigan Historical Commission, the center’s advisory board, approves applications based on a site’s historical significance, which can be local or statewide.
Kalkaska County currently has two historical markers: one at Rugg Pond Dam and another at Excelsior City Hall, according to the Michigan History Center’s online database.
The process takes approximately one year from application to deposit of the historical marker, with review of application, development of sign text, and ordering of sign and deposit. The Michigan Historical Commission helps develop the text for the sign, which is usually presented as a story about the place and its meaning, Clark said.
Michigan has a few markers that are for cemeteries, although there aren’t that many,” Clark said. She said it’s unlikely they’ll make a whole marker for one person, but the important people who are buried in the cemetery could be mentioned on a marker for an entire cemetery.
“I think these are wonderful pieces of public history,” Clark said. “They build community pride. They are places where children discover their community and where visitors discover their community. They validate the places.
Typically, the Michigan Historical Commission receives about 20 applications in a normal year and turns down about two to three.
Rapid River Township Supervisor Terry Williams said the township is “100 percent for it,” and he said he sees no opposition from the township council. That idea is in its infancy and hasn’t been discussed much by the township council, including how much money the township would be willing to spend, Williams said.
“If they continue, I think it will be a very good thing for the township and for people outside of this township who are interested in this stuff,” Williams said.
Parzych and Senske are working with township administrator Matthew Brenner on the app. Right now, they’re in the research and planning phase, Brenner said. The Kalkaska County Clerk has copied historical documents for them, which they will discuss at their next meeting, Brenner said.
Parzych is also in the process of obtaining cemetery records, which contain information about who is buried there and who buried them, via a township Freedom of Information Act request.
Brenner also worked at the Rugg Pond site, which has a historical marker, and is part of an effort in the township to continue repairs to the dam. He said he looked forward to working on this project and that the township appreciates the work done by Parzych and Senske and the fact that they presented it to the board.
But, the process may take some time, given the pace at which government operations typically evolve, he said.
“Big wheels move slowly,” he said. “Even in a small township.”