TRAVERSE CITY — Sometimes you have to unbury a cemetery to honor the dead.
Elmwood Township's John Sawyer didn't say that, but that's what happened to him.
It started in mid-July when he noticed a small American flag fluttering in an over-grown, all-but-forgotten graveyard as he drove down Fouch Road in Leelanau County.
"What the heck?" he asked himself as he pulled over along the tree-lined road and walked into small rural graveyard.
He picked his way to the flag through deadfall and the long limbs of old cedar, pine and maple trees swooping down across the ground, shrouding the eight graves and their headstones, some broken, some lying flat on the ground.
"The flag was on a Civil War veteran's grave, and that's what got me going," said Sawyer, the son of a career U.S. Marine Corps officer.
"This just can't be, I told myself. Headstones tipped over and broken, trees growing up out of graves."
Since that day, the cleanup of the 50-by-100 foot Fouch Road Cemetery has become a passion for Sawyer, who also has tracked down the history of its occupants through local records and Ancestry.com.
"I was taken aback and felt I had to do something, so I did," he added.
The Civil War veteran's name was J.B. Thacker, who died in 1883. J.B. stands for John Beattie. He served in the 169th Ohio Infantry Regiment. His wife, Emily Fouch Thacker, who died in late 1868, lies next to him. Tree roots toppled her gravestone and broke it in two. She was the sister of early Leelanau County farmer and businessman, John Fouch, also a member of the 169th Ohio.
George Fox, the second Civil War veteran and homesteader buried in the graveyard also came from Ohio and served with Thacker and Fouch. Fox lies beside his wife and son.
Sawyer's latest discovery occurred Aug. 31 when his rake hit a fallen headstone marking the small grave of 1-year-old Evangeline Cook, who died in 1932. Within a day, Sawyer had tracked down the Seattle great-great-granddaughter of one of Evangeline's younger sisters via U.S. Census records, which showed that the Cook family moved to Washington state a few years later.
Sawyer has uncovered more of his own family history, too. One Maine and three New York ancestors fought in the Civil War and yet another Maine relative battled in the American Revolutionary War. As a result, he decided to join the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and Sons of the American Revolution.
The retired Traverse City Light & Power maintenance employee didn't uncover the cemetery alone. John Deering Tree Service donated "four trucks, four men and five hours." Ron Popp, owner of Popp Excavating, loaned him a dump truck and tools. Terry Walters, owner of Ace Welding in Traverse City, also offered to fabricate some aluminum channel for the repair of Emily Thacker's headstone.
Sawyer sees the physical labor and research as a way to honor the people and restore dignity to the cemetery.
"It was something that needed to be done," he said. "It shows respect for the people who came here before us. It's hard to find direct descendants to these people, but there are still families in this area three or four generations later that can trace ancestors to these people."
TRAVERSE CITY — Sometimes you have to unbury a cemetery to honor the dead.
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