Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Birch Hill Cemetery established to honor a wife's last wish




Minnie Slater's grave at Birch Hill Cemetery
Antone “Tony” Zimmerman was a well-known miner in early Fairbanks.    He is perhaps best-known, however, for developing and donating Birch Hill Cemetery to the Fairbanks community in the late 1930s.

Clay Street Cemetery in Fairbanks was beginning to fill up, but Zimmerman's motive for starting the facility at Birch Hill was in large part due to the wishes of his first wife, Serina.  Before she died in 1938 Serina expressed her desire to be buried there. 

Zimmerman, who owned 47 acres at the base of the hill fronting on Lazelle Road and the Steese Highway, interred her in a reinforced concrete crypt on a rocky outcropping overlooking Lazelle road. (Tony and his second wife, Ester, would later be buried beside Serina.)

Zimmerman’s intention was to develop the entire 47 acres as a cemetery. According to an article in the November 8, 1938 issue of the Alaska Miner newspaper, the original Birch Hill ski area and cabin were located on the upper part of the tract. Zimmerman planned to relocate the cabin and ski area, building a mausoleum at their location. The cabin was moved, but the mausoleum never materialized.
           
Zimmerman cleared part of the hillside, and put in a road and drainage ditches. He also offered to “donate a plot free of charge to every church and lodge in Fairbanks that might desire the same, and the balance to the City of Fairbanks or to the general public, also free of charge.” A 1938 plat of the land shows cemetery sections for most of Fairbanks’s civic groups.

The Birch Hill Cemetery Association was formed to administer the new cemetery, but
debate about the suitability of the land for a cemetery slowed its transfer. Some residents cited erosion problems with spring run-off, and the fact that no water was available for irrigation. However, these arguments did not sway the community, and the Cemetery Association accepted the cemetery in 1939.

The grave shown in the drawing dates from this period. It is the burial site of Minnie Starr Slater, who died in December, 1939. She was the wife of Charles Slater, who, along with Minnie, homesteaded across the river from Fairbanks. (Their homestead became Slaterville, with Minnie Street named after Charles’ wife.)

The cemetery association donated the cemetery to the City of Fairbanks in 1957. Under city management the cemetery continued to inter people, however, the cemetery was not set up as a “perpetual care’ facility, and the interment fees never covered the continued upkeep of the graves. In later years groundskeeping was a low priority for the city and the cemetery deteriorated.

In 1994 annual volunteer cleanups began in order to improve the cemetery. The City, unable to keep the grounds adequately maintained, transferred the cemetery to Fairbanks Funeral Home (FFH) in 2007.  One of the accomplishments of FFH was setting aside a portion of the cemetery for Native burials. In 2011, the cemetery was sold to Leo and Kirsten Rasmussen.

Over the years the Pioneers of Alaska has become involved with the cemetery. In 2003 the Pioneers’ Igloo No. 4 Foundation began placing and replacing markers on the graves of pioneers around Interior Alaska. Erica Miller, a member of the Pioneer’s Fairbanks chapter, told me that to date they have placed 149 markers at Birch Hill Cemetery, and another 121 at the Clay Street Cemetery in Fairbanks. They have also placed markers at the Livengood, Manley, Circle Hot Springs, Deadwood (near Central), and the Nenana city cemeteries. Volunteers from across the state (including one from Nome) have also recently participated in a Pioneers of Alaska project to clean up the cemeteries at Chitina and McCarthy.

Cemeteries are often the only evidence left from early settlements, It is gratifying that some individuals and groups are working to keep these important historic sites alive.


Sources:

  • “Birch Hill slope site favored,” in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 12-10-1938
  • Conversation with Doug Ketterer, current caretaker for Birch Hill Cemetery
  • Conversation with Erica Miller, member of Fairbanks Women’s Igloo No. 8, Pioneers of Alaska
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • “First Burial on Birch Hill,” in Alaska Miner. 11-8-1938
  • “Legion not yet for hill cemetery,” in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 12-14-1938
  • “Place to remember.” Cynthia Rinear Bethune. in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 9-19-1999
 


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