Uneasy Resting at Paupers' Cemetery

Neglect leaves site shabby; retention pond proposal leaves future uncertain

By Mark Johnson  of the Journal Sentinel staff                Last Updated: Aug. 19, 2000
[Note: The red colored font below has been applied by us for emphasis. PHL ]
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Inside a chain-link fence, amid grass and weeds grown knee-high, sits a rusting sign with small white letters: "Milwaukee County Cemetery."

It doesn't look like a cemetery. Tall grass obscures the few upright gravestones. Other stones are said to be buried beneath several inches of dirt. Unlike Forest Home Cemetery, which invited the public to its 150th anniversary last week, the county cemetery has no visible paths, no carpets of neatly-trimmed grass and few visitors.

"Just looks like a prairie back there," says William Heinemann, the county's director of public works.

But these four acres that resemble a prairie - on N. 87th St., about a block north of Watertown Plank Road - are actually the final resting place for thousands of poor infants and adults whose families could not afford the price of burial. Some call it the pauper's cemetery or potter's field.

Whatever the cemetery's name, it is a sacred place to Jim Lombardo, grounds supervisor for the Department of Public Works and a man who spent three years of his childhood in the county's orphanage.

He always felt that the cemetery deserved a little dignity, and that's what he tried to give it when he became the grounds supervisor in November 1997. He brought a butterfly bush from home and planted it in the cemetery. He planted bulbs in the corners. He took down some of the dead trees and planned to repair a hole in the fence.

"All that came to a screeching halt," he says.

The cemetery and its residents no longer come under Lombardo's care and control. What's more, the remains may be moving.

In January, as part of the budget process, county officials transferred the administration of more than 200 acres, including the cemetery, from Public Works to the Parks Department.

"The area where pauper's field lies is under consideration for a detention pond," says David Zepecki, the county's director of economic development.

The Parks Department is the primary agency working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District on the detention pond project, designed to reduce the risk of flooding, and county officials believed it made sense to have the land for the project under one county department.

What would happen to the pauper's cemetery if the $36 million detention pond project goes forward isn't clear.

The sewerage district isn't sure whether the cemetery will be affected by the detention pond. If it is, the district may dig up the remains and bury them elsewhere or construct a berm to protect it from flooding.

"This could be a good thing," says Mark Kass, manager of communications for the sewerage district. "We've had reports that there have been a number of bones that have come up through the ground."

A new location may prove more secure, Kass says.

In an effort to determine the location and number of burials in the cemetery, the county has sought the help of anthropology professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Zepecki, the director of economic development, says an estimated 7,500 people were buried in the county cemetery between 1882 and 1974.

At the Department of Public Works, Lombardo can show you the names. He keeps photocopies from the cemetery's register. From time to time, Lombardo has leafed through the pages in sympathy.

"They lived. They had a purpose in life. And they ended up in there," he says.

Lombardo was 3 when he left the county orphanage with his adoptive family. But in a sense, the people in the cemetery have become orphans too. Some lost their identities when they died, entering the cemetery register as "unknown man drowned," "unknown babe" or "unknown white female."

Others were forgotten or separated from their families. Lombardo has taken calls from folks wondering if one of their relatives is buried in the cemetery.

Lombardo has noticed some of the patterns in the cemetery register. The first and last people buried were women. The Great Depression years were busy ones for the pauper's cemetery. In the cemetery's first year, 1882, there were about 60 burials. In 1931, more than 160.

It always struck Lombardo how many of the dead were very young children.

"One time last year in July I was driving by and there's a day care center up the road. Some of the workers and children were having a little picnic in there," he says. "I thought the irony was really striking. There are so many children buried there and you've got little tiny tots playing in the same grass."

Lombardo says heavy rains this spring probably contributed to the high grass in the cemetery. He isn't sure how often the Parks Department is mowing. He says he used to mow about once every 10 days.

Officials in the Parks Department did not return calls seeking comment.

County Supervisor James "Luigi" Schmitt says the county has had other projects that demanded attention and the cemetery hasn't been a high priority.

"There's no one there to push you to take care of it," Schmitt says. That's something Lombardo would like to see change.

"That's really my wish," he says, "that someone's going to make it right."

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Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 19, 2000.

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