Walking with the Spirits…a tourist in your own city

Yesterday dawned cloudy and downright cold for the season. The skies gave way to rain to further dampen our spirits. Several weeks ago, my wife and I had purchased tickets to attend the Talking Spirits Walk in Forest Hills Cemetery sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. The walk was to begin later in the evening and the rain and cold were definitely testing our resolve. Eventually, we decided we should go. We bundled up, donned rain gear and grabbed our umbrellas.

Forest Hills Spirit Walk

The walk, guided by a volunteer from the Veteran’s Museum, began just inside the main gates to the cemetery. The now light drizzle and darkness actually added to the mystery of the stroll through the Civil War sections of the cemetery. The cemetery was founded in the 1850’s and replaced the existing city cemetery located of all places on Bascom Hill located in the center of the University of Wisconsin. As we walked up the drive, softly lit by the hundreds of luminaries lining its edges, we were treated to the history of this famous cemetery and its peaceful residents now interred throughout the grounds.

We eventually reached the first vignette and waited, anticipating the arrival of our spirits. We were standing in front of what is called Soldiers Rest. Before us lay softly illuminated, the graves of some 140 Union soldiers. Before long, Mrs. Cordelia Harvey emerged from the graves and took her seat on the bench. She spoke of her husband, the late Governor Louis Harvey, who had perished by drowning during the Civil War. Her grave side soliloquize laid out the history of the era and the story of her husband’s untimely death while visiting the Union soldiers fighting down in Tennessee. As her story unfolded, another spirit emerged from the dark recesses of the graves. It was her husband, Louis Harvey. As their conversation evolved, we were drawn into their unrequited love for each other and the story of their lives cut short by his death. We were hooked. Rain and cold be damned, this was worth the effort.

Our walk through the cemetery last night afforded us three more opportunities to hear the stories, told by their spirits, of several very influential Madisonians and their impact on the city in its early period of growth. We met Benjamin Butts, an adopted Tennessee slave who became the barber of the Governors of Wisconsin. We chatted with Napoleon Bonaparte Van Slyke, a New York immigrant who became a prominent Madison businessman, Alderman and UW Regent. Among his accomplishments were the founding of the Forest Hills Cemetery and the Dane County Bank. We finished our walk with the specter of William Vilas, father of Henry Vilas Jr and founder of the park and zoo dedicated as a memorial to his son. Of the four vignettes, William Vilas’ was definitely the most moving. We felt his pride and grief and were pulled back in time as his story unfolded.

As we left the cemetery, we knew how sorry we would have been had we left the weather keep us away. We had a new understanding and respect for the role these people played in a tragic and yet exciting period in Madison’s history. In our hour and a half journey through the cemetery, we had been enlightened, moved and entertained by the spirits we met. We will soon be paying a daytime visit to Forest Hills to view and touch the grave stones of these famous people with a new found respect for their history.

This piece is meant to be a big shout out to the organizers of this event and an invitation to my readers to experience it for yourself. Even if not through another similar event, find time to just visit the cemetery and take a stroll through its beautiful and peaceful setting. Napoleon Van Slyke will certainly be pleased and maybe, if you are very quiet and the timing is right, you might just meet his spirit there beneath the trees surrounding his final resting place.

One comment

  1. Mary Ann · October 8, 2019

    I too have had the pleasure of learning about Madison’s history through this graveyard visit, but not at night with a sprinkle in the air. I attended a field trip with our son there for this re-enactment and I have not forgotten it 10 years later. Very memorable and extremely well done. Thanks for bringing back the memories and sharing, I hope you can all visit one day.


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