Caretakers of Laurel’s history at Ivy Hill Cemetery

Laurel Leader

The back story of Ivy Hill Cemetery is woven deeply into Laurel's rich historic tapestry. The graveyard, resting on a serene, 10-acre parcel along the north side of Sandy Spring Road, frames a gently rolling landscape accented by a breeze that whispers through stands of old-growth shade trees. American flags and flowers, fresh and artificial, standing erect from gravesites shape a multi-color quilt.

The burial grounds, squeezed between townhouse developments and across from Pi's Deli, echo with familiar names plucked from Laurel's dynastic, genealogical tree: Nichols, Aitcheson, Giddings, Scaggs, Leishear, Yeager, Redmiles, Turney and Scardina.

At regular intervals, the soothing hills are dotted with strikingly handsome, individual memorials with names of fallen members of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, Laurel Police Department and Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad. American Legion Post 60 also has a monument.

Old Town resident Marlene Frazier said her strolls through Ivy Hill are always transformative, nourishing her soul "for the history it holds, for the people who were here. And it's beautiful! It's a nice, peaceful place."

Frazier, who sits on the board of directors of the Laurel Historical Society, also likes the fact that Ivy Hill radiates a more personal air than larger cemeteries.

Monuments are sprinkled with telling inscriptions that offer glimpses into the cultural norms of the day. As an example, Frazier singled out two parallel graves.

"There's a man's name on it and next to him, the grave says 'His Wife,'" Frazier said. "It takes you back to the mindset of the day."

Another epitaph may allude to the deceased's earthly occupation, encouraging him to "Keep on Trucking."

Offbeat trivia abounds about Ivy Hill. One of the best-known involves the 1894 exhumation of a 500-pound woman, Jane Tyson, whose petrified body was exhumed from a nearby graveyard and reburied at Ivy Hill. Her remains, the Baltimore Sun reported, "were in a complete state of preservation, being petrified into white marble." Her corpse, the story continued, had neither been embalmed, nor was ice used to preserve it. Lifting her casket took eight men.

Ivy Hill's past is traced to the mid 1800s, when the Laurel Cotton Mill reserved three acres of land to serve as a final resting place for poor mill workers. By 1890, a private stock company purchased eight acres next to the burial grounds and sold stock to 150 families, entitling them to cemetery plots.

In 1944, the year Ivy Hill merged with Greenwood Cemetery, a Baltimore bank began acting as a trustee of the bankrupt mill company, deeding the cemetery to the private stock company.

Burials continued during that period, with the stock company assigned to providing basic maintenance to the ground's common areas. The ownership drama stretched into 1953, when the case landed in court.

The presiding judge ruled that the cemetery's finances were too confusing to sort out, as most of its records had been lost, burned or destroyed. In the end, the court dissolved the corporation and appointed a receiver.

Meanwhile, from 1955 to 1972, the conditions at Ivy Hill had deteriorated nearly to seed. In 1973, the burial ground had a renaissance. That was when a group of Laurel residents organized the Ivy Hill Association, launching a campaign to clean up the cemetery. At last, legal entanglements were streamlined. In 1974, the Circuit Court of Prince George's County appointed the nonprofit group to serve as its trustee.

Warren Litchfield, born and raised in Laurel, lent a hand in helping to refresh the cemetery with an air of dignity. Litchfield, 87, an ordained minister and former chaplain of the Prince George's County Fire Department, said a graveyard "should be a place of solace and remembrance. We cleaned up weeds around the trees, took up an old hedge and put a blacktop road and fence in. A lot of people were involved in the restoration."

Over the course of its long history, ownership hasn't been the only issue that has plagued Ivy Hill. In 1990, just before Christmas, vandals overturned 57 headstones, smashing some and damaging numerous brass vases.

"It's sad people have to go to these extremes to have fun," Jim Collins, who was the Laurel police spokesman, told the Leader at that time. "You wonder what motivates them to do that."

In the aftermath of the destruction, Glenn Beall, a former Laurel administrator and member of the cemetery board, was quoted in the Leader as saying when he heard of the vandalism, he wasn't surprised; he warned the board members a few days earlier about the easy access the cemetery offers.

"Both entrances are open," he told the Leader. "People use it as a dog run, despite a county law that says dogs must be leashed."

Caretakers

Walter Tegeler is Ivy Hill's longtime manager and caretaker. Tegeler, who owns the W.S. Tegeler Monument Company in Woodlawn, builds and sells monuments, markers, bronze markers and cemetery lettering for a number of cemeteries in the area, including Ivy Hill.

Tegeler dispelled the rumor that Ivy Hill has run out of room.

"We've got plenty of space available," he said, adding that the parcel extends beyond the rear fence. The oldest gravestone, he said, identifies a man named Pritchard, and dates to 1867.

Tegeler, whose family began the company in 1897, said the cemetery provides the entombment of cremated remains in a columbarium, a vault with recesses in the walls for the storage of urns containing remains.

Tegeler said Ivy Hill is making plans to add a cremation garden featuring walkways, bushes and benches.

"A lot of religions that didn't believe" in cremation, he said, have come to accept it. Remains left in an urn on a mantel, in order to provide honor and context to the deceased's life, "should be interred with a simple name and date," Tegler said. "A lot of people sometimes say, `just throw me in the river,' but by doing this, there could be generations lost."

Bill Watts agreed. Watts, a member of the cemetery board and a retired Prince George's County police officer, said cremated remains can get lost in the fog of history without putting departed lives in an organized, systematic context for reflection and genealogical research purposes.

"It's kind of a shame," he said. "There's no documentation for future generations."

Watts, 65, of West Laurel, said Ivy Hill is more appealing, more personal, than the larger graveyards.

"I'll just walk through there on a nice spring or fall day," Watts said. "It means something to me to see firemen and police together. I find it calming and relaxing."

Tegeler, who took charge of the family business at 18, reported that he, too, loves to follow history. When he's visiting Ivy Hill, he pictures "long ago, when there were horse and wagons on Main Street." And once, during a cruise with his wife to Key West, Fla., the couple chose not to follow the rest of the passengers when they got off the ship.

"We wound up in a cemetery," he said. "I'm sure we were the only ones."

Litchfield said cemeteries are an easy target as places to dread.

"Some people have a fear of certain things," he observed. "Nobody in there's going to bother you. But if they know you're walking through," he joked, "then you've got problems."

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