Past and Present: Exploring De Pere’s Greenwood Cemetery

Local News

(WFRV) – What we now call Northeast Wisconsin was once considered the American Northwest. As the oldest European settlement west of the original 13 colonies, our area has deep roots and rich heritage. 

Local 5 brings you on an exciting journey back in time, with our series “Past and Present.” In partnership with the Green Bay – De Pere Antiquarian Society, we’ll be exploring little-known historical gems in our own backyard.  

Our first installment in the series takes us back to the Civil War era as we explore De Pere’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Nestled along the shores of the Fox River, this picturesque resting place is a treasure trove of local history. 

“It is unlike any other cemetery,” said Jewels Sowers, President of the De Pere Greenwood Cemetery Association. “It is the history of who we are.” 

Dating back to 1859, the De Pere Greenwood cemetery is the final resting place of more Civil War Veterans… Well, more than anyone actually knows for sure.

“In terms of Civil War veterans buried here, it’s somewhere between 42 and 74,” chuckled Randall Lawton, a descendant of two generations of Civil War veterans in Greenwood. “We’re trying to get a handle on exactly how many it is.” 

What we do know is many of their descendants, like Lawton, still call this area home.

“The first Lawton arrived in 1851,” Lawton recalled. “That was Joseph G. Lawton.”

In fact, it was Joseph G. Lawton’s son who came home from the Civil War and founded, what remains to this day, one of our area’s most prominent companies. 

“It was C.A. Lawton, that started the company that is still in existence,” Lawton said, referring to his great grandfather. 

Joseph G. and C. A. Lawton are both in pretty good company, surrounded by Lawtons everywhere you look.

“There are 14 direct relatives,” Lawton explained. “Two next to them are my mother’s parents and then there’s probably another 20 more distant relatives buried hither and yon.” 

De Pere’s Karen Schmidt has seven generations of relatives buried at Greenwood.

“That’s his daughter, so that would be my great, great grandmother,” Schmidt said, pointing to the elaborate gravemarker of Civil War veteran Captain Samuel Harrison.

Samuel Harrison, as the story goes, was paid two hundred dollars to take someone’s place in the civil war.

“He went to war and so did three of his sons,” said Schmidt. “Two of them were buried here.” 

Captain Harrison died in battle before he made it back home to De Pere, but all those generations of his family are buried here with him.  

“So three of her brothers and father were all in the civil war,” Schmidt explained, indicating another family headstone.  

Schmidt is one of many of Harrison’s descendants who still call De Pere home.  She would be the captain’s great, great, great-granddaughter.

“It makes you feel really connected to the community,” Schmidt said. 

Back in the 1800s, burial places didn’t have the eerie connotations graveyards sometimes do today.  Rather, they were peaceful, park-like settings, like along the beautiful shores of the Fox River where Greenwood is located. People would gather there, even have picnics and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. With the passage of time, however, each year brings with it the risk of history, simply floating downstream.  Numerous headstones tilt precariously down the bank of the river. Some are actually touching the water, others are gone forever.

“The cemetery is washing away,” Somers explained. “We need to preserve that, so we don’t lose more graves being washed away down the hill.” 

Preserving the past is the mission of the Green Bay- De Pere Antiquarian Society, Local 5’s partner in bringing you the legends and lore of our local history. 

“We have such a rich history here and people are proud of it, but they only know as much as they’re told,” said Cate Zueske with the Antiquarian Society. “Through the Antiquarians, through all the local societies, we are able to share those hometown stories and engage other people.”  

Hometown stories like the gift of the Greenwood Cemetery 

“We go back so far in history in this area,” said Somers. “It needs to be preserved.” 

Click here to learn more. Find out how you can help preserve history.

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