Trees bring attention to City of Evansville historic cemeteries

As the superintendent of two cemeteries that date to the 1850s, Chris Cooke knows the importance of thinking for the long-term.

“In any given day my problems can go back to 1853,” he said of his day-to-day duties managing Oak Hill Cemetery and Arboretum and Locust Hill Cemetery and Arboretum. Both are located in Evansville, Ind.

When Cooke thinks about the tree stock within these two properties, he focuses on the future.

“When I plant a tree,” he said, “I have to think about the impact over the next 100 years.”

That kind of forward thinking has paid dividends for Oak Hill and Locust Hill.

By pursuing arboretum certification, hosting a diverse array of events and cultivating valuable relationships with volunteers, Cooke and his team have been able to increase visitation, awareness and community support for the two cemeteries.

Becoming an arboretum

Oak Hill Cemetery & Arboretum, which dates to 1853, earned Arbnet’s Level II accreditation for its William Halbrooks Arboretum in spring 2017.

A dedicated group of city employees and volunteers pitched in to do the work needed to gain certification. Cooperation from Evansville’s urban forestry department and its city arborist—helpfully located on the cemetery grounds—was key.

It also helped that the grant writer on the project was a Master Gardener. A grant from the local master gardener chapter paid for the Plants Map interactive plant tags the cemetery used to label its trees for arboretum certification.

The cemetery is just five minutes from the campus of the University of Evansville, and Cooke said university volunteers have been instrumental in checking and verifying information for the tags.

Locust Hill earned Arbnet’s Level I certification in November 2017. This marked a turning point for the tree stock in this 67-acre cemetery. Cooke said an ice storm took out more than a dozen mature trees in 2009.

“It took us eight years go get to this point where we could apply to be an arboretum.”

Locust Hill’s arboretum is named for James Bethel Gresham, thought to be the first American serviceman to die fighting in World War I. Gresham is one of the 30,000 individuals buried at Locust Hill. In spring 2018, Locust Hill was one of 100 U.S. places designated as a World War I Centennial Memorial.

Visitors bring visibility

Cooke notices a lot more traffic from photographers since the cemeteries became arboreta.

One of them is Liz Ertle, a professional photographer in Evansville who has been pursuing a volunteer project to photograph every tree at Oak Hill.

Ertle’s creative images, some of which use infrared techniques, can be found on her own Plants Map profile, as well as the Oak Hill profile.

“It’s  a nice peaceful, quiet place to take a relaxing walk,” Ertle said of Oak Hill. “I started walking out there and saw that all the trees were really pretty.”

Ertle walks the cemetery on her lunch breaks—she works nearby—and in the evenings, as she works to photograph every tree species during different seasons. These photos will fill out the plant pages for the trees the cemetery has marked with Plants Map tags.

That way, visitors, can scan the QR codes on the tags and get a sense of what the tree looks like at different times of the year.

Cooke said the cemetery is extremely lucky to have Ertle’s talents. He’s used her photos, with credit, in print and online promotions for the cemetery. That’s a coup for a local government entity that operates without a marketing budget.

Events aid awareness

This past spring, Ertle helped Oak Hill organize a tree walk and photo contest that brought out local amateur photographers and photography groups.

“A lot of people don’t even know the cemetery is here, even though it’s been around for more than a century,” Ertle said.

She worked with a few photography clubs, and was pleased to see photographers shooting video, portraits and other types of work at the event. She’s been happy to see some return in the months since.

Cooke said Oak Hill will definitely repeat the event next year. He wants to spread it to Locust Hill as well. Some of the images made at the event have been incorporated into the cemetery’s Plants Map page, and Cooke says it has helped them forge valuable relationships with local photography groups.

Organizing around a threat to trees

As Halloween neared, Oak Hill held its third annual Twilight Tour. This walking tour highlights the history of the cemetery and the individuals laid to rest within it, but it also helps Oak Hill to fight a major threat to some of its trees.

The emerald ash borer—a green beetle that has destroyed tens of millions of ash trees across the U.S.—started making its presence known in the region surrounding Evansville about five years ago. Since ash trees are prominent throughout the city, Cooke and his colleagues knew they needed to do something.

Oak Hill has 23 ash trees, and Locust Hill has one. The trees must be treated every two to three years to ward off the ash borer, at a cost of thousands of dollars. Those kinds of funds aren’t always available when public budgets are tight, so Evansville has set up an adopt-an-ash program to treat trees throughout the city.

At Oak Hill, the Twilight Tour, a donation-based event, seeks to raise funds to address the trees that are due for treatment in any given year.

This year, Cooke said, the tour drew about 75 people and raised close to $1,500—enough to treat the half-dozen trees that needed attention.

Photo courtesy of the students of The University of Evansville

Oak Hill works with the Vanderburgh County Historical Society and the nonprofit Evansville Parks Foundation to put on the event.

Those kinds of partnerships, and the relationships the cemeteries have forged with Ertle and other individuals, are crucial to keeping these two historic properties in prime condition, and to generating the public awareness that makes them a vital part of the community.

“What our story should tell anybody,” Cooke says, “is don’t let a lack of money deter you from having a vision. I always tell people, if you get a group of motivated folks, you can’t put a price tag on that.”



To learn more, follow the City of Evansville, Indiana, on Plants Map.