It’s all coming together

Utica Cemetery touts improvements, return of historic headstone

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published December 16, 2015

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP/UTICA — The Utica Cemetery, located in Shelby Township, recently finished a yearlong process of replacing its sign and installing a 26,000-pound marble columbarium, a monument for the storage of loved ones’ ashes.

The historic headstone of Gurden C. Leech, who proposed renaming the city from the village of Harlow to Utica in 1833, also found its way back to Leech’s burial site after going missing for about 30 years.

Chuck Cuddington, a Utica City Council member and superintendent of the cemetery, said not much is known about Leech, except that he proposed the current name of the city at the age of 22 or 23 and died on May 10, 1841, at the age of 30 years, three months and two days.

When he was 18 or 19 years old, Jim Bryant, of Warren, discovered the grave marker in a pile of rubble on the side of the road, near 21 Mile and Ryan roads. He said it looked like it had fallen off a truck.

Bryant took the slab home with intentions of fashioning it into a table, but when he cleaned it off, he realized it was a headstone.

He said his mother made phone calls, but no one seemed interested, and he gave it to his grandfather, who lived next door. His grandfather flipped it over and used it as a doorstep into his garage, where it lay for nearly three decades.

After his grandfather’s house burned down in April 2010, Bryant said crews demolished the house and garage, but left the stone. He said a construction worker damaged the headstone when he tried to pick it up with a backhoe.

After rebuilding a house on his grandfather’s leveled property, Bryant said he called police departments and eventually the Utica Cemetery after doing some investigating into Leech.

Cuddington recently picked up the headstone from Bryant’s house and placed it near the Leech family monument, which denotes where many of Leech’s relatives are buried.

As for the cemetery’s sign, Cuddington said it took a year to replace it because the cemetery’s board of directors had to wait for the delivery of the columbarium, which required a crane to put in place.

“The black and gold looks much nicer than green and white,” he said. “(Board member) Ron Kerner had the sign made, and I did the poles. I brought my scaffolding, and we put it together. I’ve got nothing but compliments on the color.”

Kerner said the old sign was bent and rusted through. He said the scrollwork and the cast iron posts are the only things they kept from the old sign.

“Sooner or later, it would have fallen down,” he said. “The new sign should last for another 50 years.”

As for the columbarium, Kerner said the board is seeing more people opting for cremation instead of burials.

“It’s not really a mausoleum, but it’s something that will suffice and be very nice and look very good,” he said.

At press time, Cuddington said the Utica Department of Public Works less than two weeks ago had finished laying the brickwork around the columbarium and installing nearby benches for reflection.

“We placed (the columbarium) in the original spot where, in the early days, all the funerals were done, and then (the coffins) were taken to the grave sites,” he said.

In the past six or seven years, the board razed an old storage building near the front of the cemetery and built a larger building for storing equipment and doing repair work near the rear. The next step is to replace the green chain link fence with a black fence.

Cuddington said he is working on a system to label rows of headstones, so locating graves will be easier.

For more information about the Utica Cemetery, which is owned by the Utica Cemetery Association, call (586) 703-8453.

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