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Gravestone Mystery Laid to Rest

October 25, 2008

Gravestone mystery laid to rest


By Kurt Rentmeester

The identities of five children buried in an unmarked grave in the town of Clay Banks Cemetery might have remained unknown to their descendents had a persistent caretaker not determined their memory must live on. 

In the 1800s, farmers, laborers, mill workers and others who settled such communities as Vignes and Hornspier struggled to survive from day to day, said cemetery caretaker Dick Hitt. 

Their lives are documented on headstones in this rural cemetery overlooking Lake Michigan. 

"There's a lot of people, (and) you don't know where they are," said Allen Everson, an assistant at the cemetery. "A lot of people, they never got marked." 

Nine years ago, Everson discovered a wooden marker buried just beneath the soil with the name Oakley on it. 

After learning the grave belonged to the children of James and Flora Oakley, Hitt spent three years unraveling its mystery. 

James and Flora Oakley moved to the town in the 1860s from the Manitowoc Rapids area, he said. James worked at a lumber mill, and the couple raised 10 children. 

Their oldest child, Freddie, died in 1876 in an accident on Toft's Pier. According to the Door County Advocate archives, the 8-year-old boy was killed when a pile of lumber fell on him, Hitt learned. 

Another daughter, Frances, and a son, William, were buried there, Hitt said. A 2- or 3-year-old daughter without a name and a fifth child — name and sex unknown — also are there. 

The family ater moved to Algoma, then to Sturgeon Bay, Hitt said. In 1920, they moved to Milwaukee and later to Chicago. Flora died on June 30, 1934, while James died on Jan. 24, 1935. They are buried in Bayview Cemetery in Sturgeon Bay. 

Among their surviving children were Jennie Mae Oakley, who married Joseph Richmond, and Harriot Oakley, who married Frank Shimmel. A surviving son, James Oakley, became a tugboat captain. 

Jennie Mae, who was 91 years old when she died in 1968, worked at Marshall Field Department Store in Chicago. Her daughter, Lucille Richmond Hayes, also worked there. She was 98 years old when she died in 1998. 

Although Jennie and Lucille spent their later years in Carpentersville, Ill., Hitt's search for their descendents stalled there. 

While funeral home operators there provided little help, Renee Huehns, who runs Huehns Funeral Home in Sturgeon Bay with her husband, Todd Huehns, continued the search. She looked for names in obituaries and on Web sites and called families. 

"We cross-referenced names in the obituaries," Huehns said. "A lot of times, names are repeated in a family. It's harder now, with privacy laws. It was a matter of cross-referencing information and trying to follow where families are located." 

Her search ended last year when she discovered Jennie Mae Richmond's 78-year-old grandson, John Earl Hayes, was living in Chetek. 

Hitt called Hayes for the first time 10 months ago to inform him of his ancestors' grave. Hayes never knew his grandmother had five older siblings who passed away as children. 

"When they called here, it was kind of heartbreaking to think there were five children here without a marker on their grave," recalled his wife, Patricia Hayes. 

When a service was held earlier this month at the town of Clay Banks Cemetery, John Earl and Patricia Hayes were there with their children and grandchildren. 

"I think it's a lovely memory of the children that passed and kind of went forgotten over the years," John Earl Hayes said. "To create a little thought for them is nice." 

His daughter, Terri Lozier, was grateful for Hitt's help. 

"When I was a kid, we wrote down as much as we could," Lozier said. "When Jennie Mae was alive, she was my great-grandmother. We used to (say), 'Jennie, tell us what you remember.'" 

The Hayes' granddaughter, Kelly Lozier, flew to Wisconsin from Charleston, S.C., to attend the memorial. She was 16 when her great-grandmother, Lucille, died.

Hitt was gratified by the Hayes' appreciation for discovering these ancestors. 

"I'm blessed by something like this happening," he said. 

The wooden marker has been replaced by a new Georgia gray granite monument supplied by the Clay Banks Cemetery Association. 

The monument, with words from Patricia Hayes, said simply: "Sheltered in the arms of the Lord." 

"Even if we didn't know there were children here, maybe their relatives did and that they were always protected," she said. "God knew who they were." 

Patricia and John Earl Hayes display the wooden marker in the great room of their home. Learning about these new family members has helped them appreciate their own. 

"Sometimes we complain, but we don't appreciate what we really have," John Earl Hayes said. "You can appreciate the family you come from more (knowing about) the struggles they had to endure." 

This article can be seen in its original format in the Saturday, October 25, 2008 edition of the Door County Advocate. 

October 25, 2008 

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