Lyon Township cherishes tie to its past
Lyon Township -- A rustic iron fence and 170 years separate Ambrose Orvis from the 21st century traffic that speeds by his final resting place along Milford Road.
Orvis, who died in 1844 at age 86, fought in the Revolutionary War and is among 80 military veterans buried in New Hudson Cemetery, a tiny burial ground surrounded by sprawl in one of Metro Detroit's fastest growing suburbs.
From inside the cemetery gates, visitors can look across Milford Road and see a Jet's Pizza, a Subway restaurant, Leo's Coney, nail salon and a Sprint cellphone outlet. A bank is just north of the cemetery. These are the trappings of growing suburbia: Last year alone, Lyon Township's population grew 4.6 percent to 17,215, according to census data released last week.
Despite the cemetery's small size — barely three acres and 1,064 graves — it's the resting place of veterans of many of America's conflicts since the nation was born. Besides the Revolutionary War, there are veterans of the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War.
With two narrow dirt entryways and traditional marble headstones that stand at the cemetery's entrance, the graveyard looks as if it has been plucked from a history book.
Officials and residents take pride in maintaining Lyon Township's piece of American history, which draws extra visitors during patriotic observances. Last week, township officials planted U.S. flags on veterans' graves in preparation for Memorial Day.
"Over the years, the area has changed with the building of new businesses and restaurants, but the cemetery has stayed the same," said Township Clerk Michele Cash, who helped decorate the graves. "It's so much history here. It's no Woodlawn, but it's our quaint and nice cemetery."
Orvis, for instance, was from Halifax, Vermont, and settled in New Hudson with his wife and three children after helping the American colonies win their independence. Library records indicate he played snare drum at the first inaugural ceremony of President George Washington in New York City in 1789.
John Bell, a local historian and author of the book "Images of America: Lyon Township," said in the decades after the war for independence that many settlers migrated to what's now southeast Oakland County because of the available land.
"A lot of people made their way here from New York during the 1830s and decided to make this their home. Farmland was plentiful back then," Bell said. "While some of the first settlers of the town are buried in New Hudson, I think a lot of their relatives have moved from the area."
Over the years, as the area developed and other community issues took precedence, the cemetery gradually fell into disrepair. David Carter, who owns Carter's Cemetery Preservation in Commerce Township, decided to help the township restore the burial ground to its rightful dignity.
'This is so rewarding'
"Back in 2012, when I started working on it, New Hudson (cemetery) was in bad shape. It was an eyesore. There were many broken and fallen headstones," said Carter, who restores cemeteries in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. "This is so rewarding to me. Many families are proud and thankful when they see someone take interest in their loved one's resting place."
For some township residents, no other graveyard will do.
April Talaga, the township's deputy clerk, helps keep records at the cemetery, where she already purchased her own burial plot.
"Some people find it morbid to buy a plot while living, but it's a way to guarantee that you will be buried close to family since the cemetery doesn't have many spaces available," Talaga said. "Also, it takes the financial burden away from family members."
With only 231 grave plots still available, New Hudson is the only active cemetery in Lyon Township. Three others — Kent Lake, Rose and Everett — are full.
A few miles down on Milford Road, the War Dog Memorial Cemetery provides the final resting place to more than 2,000 pooches that served with military personnel.
"Last week, we had a ceremony for a fallen war dog. Over 200 people came out to pay their respects," Bell said. "That shows you how important it is and the honor people show to not just humans but to pets as well."
To some township residents, New Hudson Cemetery is an anchor that keeps a rapidly changing community's roots from disappearing.
Others are surprised the graveyard's still there, in a place that's become a prime location for new businesses, which include a nearby Lowe's and Wal-Mart.
"In the last 10 years, this town has really grown. Everywhere you look there is new subdivisions popping up and new restaurants," said Melinda Tackie-Newton of Lyon Township, who expressed concern that the cemetery could be overrun by commerce.
"I hope no one tries to move it. That would be too creepy to know that your favorite store was built on a cemetery."
Cemetery land 'sacred'
Despite the development around New Hudson, Cash insists the cemetery is staying right where it is.
"This land is sacred and it would be too expensive to try and relocate it," Cash said. "The cemetery has been expanded three times over the years. There are veterans and residents buried here over 100 years. It can be difficult to track down families if there was ever a move like that."
Carter says the cemetery and its departed residents need to be respected and protected.
"It's so important to me to help preserve history," Carter said. "You are not just restoring the headstone, you are restoring the person — and that's a good feeling and a service to them."