Early in the nineteenth century cemeteries were viewed as graveyards, burying grounds or bone yards. Located within cities and towns, they were over-crowded and unsanitary. Advocates for better burying grounds promoted rural, or garden, cemeteries using an attractive park-like setting on larger tracts of land and architectural design.
Mount Auburn Cemetery (1831) in Boston was the first to use the word “cemetery.” It also marked the first time burying grounds became a business rather than the domain of churches.
Rural cemeteries gained popularity for both burials and public use, and, by the 1860s, could be found on the outskirts of cities and small towns across the country.
Under the leadership of Frederick A. Lee, a number of “gentlemen of the village” convened during the summer of 1856 to address the need for a more suitable place for interment of the dead. Lakewood Cemetery was incorporated July 26, 1857.
A site for the Cemetery was selected on the hillside overlooking Otsego Lake, in the Town of Middlefield, a short distance from the Cooperstown village limits. In the presence of a large crowd, the Cemetery was dedicated on September 3, 1857.
Using hand tools, a horse and wagon or cart, the employees cleared trees and terraced and graded the hillside. Roadways, or avenues, and walkways made their serpentine routes up the hill, providing access to the lots. A walk was built from the village to the cemetery entrance.
The property between the Cemetery and the lake was purchased in 1863 for future use and opening an avenue to the lake. A substantial landing place was created on the shoreline. A more permanent dock was built in 1912.
The keeper’s house burned in 1862 and was rebuilt the following year with brick. A horse barn and meadow were developed on the lakeside property. A Receiving Tomb was completed in 1862 but its use was discontinued when funeral homes provided appropriate facilities year around.
In the Spring of 1860 the Cooper Monument, surmounted by a statue of “Leather-stocking” and his dog Hector, was erected.
Individual monuments, obelisks, and statues proliferated throughout the Cemetery. They continue to provide a veritable exhibition of gravestone art. Many lots were graced with ornamental fencing and urns.
A Cemetery Gateway Fund was established in March 1870 and funds were raised by a Gateway Festival and other events.
Halfway up the hillside, a pool and fountain became an attractive feature but have since been replaced by a marker memorializing the founders of the Cemetery.
In 1902, a ton of cannon balls were placed in two pyramids of ten balls each on the corners of the L.C. Turner Post G.A.R. lots, as markers for the soldiers’ plot. The G.A.R., or Grand Army of the Republic, was a national fraternal organization of Union veterans who served in the Civil War. The Turner Post is named for Judge Levi C. Turner, who was a Major in the War and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery.
Following the annual meetings, an “Annual Report of the Trustees” was published in the local newspaper. It included number of lots sold, new lots created, interments – adults and children, removals from other cemeteries to Lakewood, and admonitions to lot owners to support the Permanent Care fund and maintain their own lots.
The Treasurer’s Report was a review of receipts (never enough) and disbursements (with emphasis on additional needs).
The Permanent Fund grew slowly. Included was an appeal for remembrance of the cemetery by lot owners, either by donation or bequest, which would “enable the Trustees to do much in the way of permanent improvement and ornamentation.” The 50th Annual Report in 1907 noted that 2,598 interments were made since opening the Cemetery. As of October 2022, there are 4,885 burials.
There have been five keepers/superintendents of Lakewood Cemetery: Edwin Bell, Richard Coats, John Coats, Leo Lincourt, Gene Lincourt, and William Truax, who is the current superintendent.
Monument dedications, fundraising events, military honors, and walking tours are highlights in the history of Lakewood Cemetery which have promoted support for the maintenance and preservation of the cemetery by lot owners and the public.
Lakewood Cemetery continues to provide a suitable burial ground for family and friends, patrons, and paupers, community leaders and entrepreneurs, and military heroes. It has all the elements of a natural sanctuary with trees and terraces, open spaces, and a notable Otsego Lake viewscape.
There are few early records of Lakewood Cemetery and most of this report has been gleaned from the local newspapers. Efforts continue to fill in the gaps where possible. If you are able to share any insights or records with us, it would be much appreciated!