Field trip brings cemetery research to life for Glen Lake eighth graders

By Linda Alice Dewey

Sun contributor

A series of coincidences culminated in an unexpected field trip for two Glen Lake eighth graders on June 9. The boys had been researching Civil War veteran Edmund Trumbull, who is buried at the Glen Arbor Township Cemetery. In late May, they learned that the veteran’s home is currently owned by Lakers basketball coach Don Miller and his wife, Sandy. The two are students of Melissa Okerlund, who teaches history in Miller’s old classroom. Okerlund arranged for them to visit the house in early June, where they met Trumbull descendant Dede DeWitt deManigold, a former student of Miller’s.

For two years, Okerlund and I have been working on a plan, which was coordinated with the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and local historians, where students might adopt-a-grave at the old Glen Arbor Township Cemetery, research their individual, clean up the grave, and perform a ceremony sometime near Memorial Day. She liked it, because the four Civil War veterans buried there, the timetable, and community partnership all dovetail with Okerlund’s curriculum.

“It’s such a great project. It directly relates to state standards in Social Studies, whole idea of civic participation being a goal, and the time period is directly connected to that eighth grade curriculum” said Melissa Okerlund. “They were learning about the homestead act, civil war, economic opportunities in our area. And learning about expansion and settlement and immigration. These are things that are part of the curriculum and it just made it so much more real and more personal, I think. It brought it down to the level of a family.”

We had been waiting for the cemetery to be cleared of the downed trees from the August 2015 storm. When that happened in November, the way opened for us to begin the school project.  

Students Tyler Bixby and Dylan Cundiff were among the 49 eighth graders to whom we presented the situation, namely: 1) the cemetery would soon be cleared, but the records had been lost; 2) the only map we had was hand-drawn by Glen Lake Middle School students in 1977 of standing headstones; 3) more were buried in unmarked graves that had once been marked by wooden shingles and crosses long since decayed. The question was: would Glen Lake Middle School eighth graders help research and find the stories of who was buried there?

The answer was, yes. The kids loved the idea that their research might mean something, that they might discover things no one really knows today. 

They chose their individuals to research from a list and files prepared by historian Andrew White of Traverse City. One of the first things they learned was how to ferret out vital information from census and death records. Rather than being “sad or gruesome,” Okerlund remarks, “the focus of the research was on how these individuals were connected in the community, [what] their lives were like, and how they contributed and developed.”

Working together, Tyler and Dylan chose Civil War veteran Edmund Trumbull, a father and widower living in Owosso, who enlisted in Company E of the 14th Michigan Infantry in 1861 at the age of 44. Tracking his Michigan regiment, they were excited to learn it eventually joined General Sherman in his March to the Sea.

Project continues despite pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, and school was dismissed to distance learning, classwork was offered but not required. Even so, more than half of Okerlund’s students continued their research, and, at the end of the school year, 28 turned in projects. “It’s kind of like that sweet spot, as an educator, when what you’re asking the students to do with their learning has a relevance to them and a richness to it that gets them genuinely excited about it,” she said. “And in this case, that was demonstrated by the follow-through [in spite of] these conditions.” Several more might have, but did not have internet, which was essential.

Glen Lake superintendent Jon Hoover believes Okerlund’s teaching skills have a lot to do with these results. “For many years, Melissa Okerlund has engendered a love for learning in her students,” he said. “This was never more evident than her students carrying on with the Glen Arbor Township Cemetery Project even after the pandemic hit, and teaching and learning had to occur primarily at home. Mrs. Okerlund kept fueling the passion for this project with her students and they responded with a like passion that kept them digging into the backgrounds of those buried at the cemetery.”

Okerlund, who herself donated over 100 hours of her own time to the project, likes that students were able to follow their noses as they discovered new lines of investigation, from shipwrecks to farmers to lumberjacks to housewives to children. Bella Romzek chose an individual who committed suicide. “She not only learned about this gentleman and his family,” said her mother, Alicia Romzek, “but she used the information she learned to educate herself about suicide and how it affects others.”

Dylan and Tyler, who met on FaceTime three times a week during the pandemic, were dismayed to discover that Edmund was discharged nine months after he enlisted, because he contracted typhoid fever. Rather than joining Sherman’s army, he and his son, John, came to Leelanau County, where John filed homestead papers, which they also learned about—free land, if you worked and lived on it! Edmund died in 1885 of complications from that typhoid fever.  

In May, Edmund’s descendant, Dede deManigold contacted us and agreed to meet Dylan and Tyler via Zoom, where they exchanged information. She told stories about the house, and Okerlund mentioned that Miller owns it now. She contacted Miller, who was open to our friendly invasion.

The outing

The June evening was warm and summery as our small group, wearing face coverings and endeavoring to socially distance, gathered on the long gravel drive next to the rambling, white, two-story white home on Trumbull Road. DeManigold hadn’t been there since she was 3 and pointed out what was once a large vegetable and flower garden, now a field dotted with yellow iris and purple lilacs. Her grandfather had sold the vegetables and flowers to folks on the road.  

We walked far back to a massive old stone foundation where the barn once stood at the base of “Trumbull Hill.” The boys, excited over a rusty old horse-drawn plow they found up in the trees, wondered what else might be back there. Miller invited them to return with metal detectors and find out.

“These community partnerships help bring the curriculum that the students learn about in the classroom to life,” said secondary principal Stephanie Long in her June 10 board meeting comments that commended Okerlund. “They help bring relevance to the curriculum.”

The boys’ mothers echo that. “I feel like it makes it way more real when they see what they’re studying and where they walked and where they’re buried,” said Jennifer Cundiff. The Cundiff family’s first place of business when they moved to Glen Arbor (Dylan was 2) was in the old Glen Arbor schoolhouse deManigold’s grandmother once attended. The Cundiffs live just the other side of Trumbull Hill. 

Next year, a new group of eighth graders will hopefully each adopt-a-grave. Their research will begin where Tyler, Dylan, and their classmates left off, bringing more stories from little cemetery in the woods to life. 

Linda Alice Dewey is an artist and the author of Aaron’s Crossing: an inspiring true ghost story, and The Ghost Who Would Not Die: a runaway slave, a brutal murder, a mysterious haunting.