Essay Project 2021: People of the Danby Cemetery
By Makenze English
In 1851, a man named Horace F. Peake purchased 200 acres of grassy land in Danby Township. Peake chose to use the land for a cemetery which he named the Danby Cemetery. Normally there’s a Church to accompany the graveyard, but this is not the case for Danby. There has not been a church near the graveyard for many years, but there was a rickety old school/church built on the land in 1841 that has since been removed. I would like to share the stories of some remarkable people buried in this cemetery.
One man buried here was given a special headstone that was previously only given to people who died in the 1800s. It is speculated that he was given this headstone because of his lifetime occupation. William Leo Lowery was a historian and worked his entire life studying the subject. Lowery was born one hot, humid day in July of 1939 in Shelby, Ohio. He graduated from high school in 1957 and received his first degree in 1962. Bill, as people called him, first obtained a Bachelor of Science in Forestry. A degree in Forestry is exactly what it sounds like, a degree in trees. People with this degree study the biggest plants on the planet-trees. Two years later, in 1964, Bill achieved his Bachelor of Arts in History. The following year was exhilarating, spent as an exchange student in Yugoslavia studying history. After finishing his studies, Lowery was hired as a Historian for the Department of Natural Resources(DNR) for two years before leaving to join the Michigan History Division in 1968. After taking a four year pause, Lowery became a Capitol Guide for the State of Michigan from 1978 until he finally retired in 1990. Bill passed away in 1995 at his home. Mr. Lowery is one of the many extraordinary people buried in the Danby Cemetery.
Among many other Veterans buried in the Danby Cemetery, there is a family of veterans buried there. Two generations of Duffey men have served this country. The first to serve was Berwell Donald “Stub” Duffey, as stated on his headstone. Stubby served in the Korean Conflict as a Corporal in the US Army. After being discharged from the Army, he started his toiling job as a carpenter. Many years after serving his country, Duffey retired and later passed away in 2003 at the age of 73. His son, Jerry Norman Duffey, gave his life for this nation in 1971 at the age of 20. Jerry served as a Specialist Sergeant in the US Army during the Vietnam War. After his death, LIFE magazine reached out and asked his parents to write an article about their son. “It was kind of a political thing…,” Joyce Cope, mother of the fallen soldier shared on Nixon’s comment about the boy on live television. President Nixon was giving a heartfelt speech about the “...on-going-de-escalation of troops,” according to sunfieldhistoricalsociety.com. He was also featured on the cover of LIFE magazine in the January 1972 edition titled “The One Boy Who Died”. His memory lives on through the article and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., which proudly displays all the fallen soldiers who gave their lives in the fight against communism.
When asked why he became the caretaker of the Danby Cemetery, Bill Nurenburg replied that the job “sparked his interest,” and that he was an “outdoorsy guy.” Mr. Nurenburg said that he enjoyed mowing the lawn and weed whacking to keep the cemetery nice and comfortable. According to Mr. Nurenburg, the caretaker is there for the sole purpose of upkeep: mowing the lawn, weed whacking, repairing any machines that may need repairing and occasionally doing maintenance of the town hall. When I visited the cemetery, there was a calmness that washed over me. I’m not quite sure how to explain it, I didn’t feel uncomfortable or weird- just calm and intrigued. Looking at all the people there, every single headstone had a story. Some said fewer words than others, but they all gave the beginning of a story about the soul that had to leave.
The Danby Cemetery is home to 2,305 people who have passed away from 1811-2020 according to findagrave.com. When you enter, the left half of the cemetery is considered “the old cemetery” and the right side of the cemetery is the “new cemetery.” In the “old cemetery” the corroded headstones are smaller than the rest of the headstones and most are barely visible above the raised ground. There’s a story for every person buried there and it serves as a place for the community to gather to remember and honor the dead. Robert Frost wrote a poem titled “In a Disused Grave” that helps capture the feelings of the living who visit graveyards:
“The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.
The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie”
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.