Historical figure’s missing gravestone found

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published January 13, 2014

 Jim Bryant holds up the historic marker belonging to Gurden C. Leech, the man who suggested the Village of Harlow be renamed Utica in 1833.

Jim Bryant holds up the historic marker belonging to Gurden C. Leech, the man who suggested the Village of Harlow be renamed Utica in 1833.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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UTICA/SHELBY TOWNSHIP/WARREN — The historic marker belonging to Gurden C. Leech, the man who in 1833 suggested that the Village of Harlow be renamed Utica, has been missing from the Utica Cemetery in Shelby Township for about 30 years.

Jim Bryant, 49, of Warren, discovered the gravestone when he was 18 or 19 years old — on his way to his favorite fishing pond — in a pile of rubble on the side of the road near 21 Mile and Ryan in Shelby Township. He said it looked like it had fallen off a truck.

Wally Doebler, the retired president of the cemetery and member of the cemetery’s board of directors, said that in the 1980s, vandals threw many headstones down a hill at the back of the cemetery, and it was believed that Leech’s fell prey to such a fate. However, he said he did not know how the headstone ended up on the side of the road, three and a half miles from the cemetery

Bryant said at first, he thought it was a fine piece of granite covered in dirt, which interested him because he was employed as a carpenter and figured he could make a table out of it. However, after he brought it home to his Warren residence, located near 14 Mile and Ryan roads, and washed it, he realized it was a gravestone.

“My mom made phone calls but, really, nobody seemed interested, and they told us to do what we wanted with it,” Bryant said. “It creeped me out a little.”

He said he ended up giving it to his grandfather, who lived next door, and that his grandfather flipped it over and used it as a doorstep into his garage, where it lay for nearly three decades.

Bryant said a fire consumed his grandfather’s house April 6, 2010, and crews demolished the house and garage.

“When I came home, everything was leveled and in a pile, but the headstone was still where it used to be. I could see where (the construction worker) tried to pick it up with the backhoe, and it dawned on me what it was,” Bryant said.

Although the bulldozer damaged the headstone, cracking the top six inches off, Bryant said the two pieces fit together like a puzzle and he felt it could be repaired.

Bryant and his fiancée, Tina Petersmarck, later rebuilt a house on his grandfather’s leveled property. They called police departments and eventually the Utica Cemetery after doing some investigating into Gurden C. Leech.

“I was just in total shock (when I realized what we had in our possession),” Petersmarck said. “It says he died May 10, 1841, AE at 30 years, three months and two days.”

Chuck Cuddington, a Utica city councilman and superintendent of the cemetery, said the couple contacted him and would return the gravestone to its rightful place in the spring. He said he knows exactly where Leech is buried; the only thing missing is the stone.

“I think it’s a great idea to put it back where it belongs. It’s a historical part of the cemetery, and it’s so important when people come to find dates and ancestors,” Cuddington said.

Even though the cemetery keeps meticulous records, sometimes the dates or names are missing from sandstone headstones because of erosion over time. Cuddington said the cemetery began burying people in the 1820s and 1830s, and the earliest legible birth date he has seen is 1745.

“It really kind of blows your mind,” he said. “There was no United States yet, no wars and very few people. In Utica alone in that era, there were maybe 30-40 people total in the whole city in 2 square miles.”

Although more people are choosing cremation over burials for economic reasons, Cuddington said there are at least another 1,000 graves available at the cemetery, located on 15 acres of land at Shelby Road, just south of 21 Mile Road.

Bryant and Petersmarck said they are excited to bring the gravestone to the cemetery in the spring to see the grounds and visit the burial site of Gurden C. Leech, and they are glad to return a piece of history to the city of Utica.

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