Nowhere else in Maine can people meet so many Civil War veterans than at Evergreen Cemetery, located at 672 Stevens Ave., in Portland —
— and through its well-organized docent tours, the Friends of Evergreen are anxious to make the introductions.
Through the mid-19th century, burials gradually filled Eastern Cemetery and Western Cemetery in Portland. To provide additional cemetery space, in 1851 the city bought 55 acres on Stevens’ Plain, which lay initially within Westbrook and later in Deering, a town founded in 1871 and incorporated within the Portland city limits in 1898.
Charles Howe, a civil engineer, designed the cemetery and its early road network. The city started selling burial lots in 1853; according to Friends of Evergreen docent Lin Brown, the first burial took place in 1854.
The ninth rural cemetery in the United States, Evergreen Cemetery spreads across 239 landscaped acres today. More than 65,000 people are buried in the cemetery, including some 1,400 Civil War veterans; whether identified by ornate monuments or simple headstones, the veterans represent a pantheon of Maine heroes.
An avid and knowledgeable Civil War buff, Brown has developed meticulous records about several hundred Civil War graves and their occupants. Brown knows, said Friends of Evergreen Executive Director Jessica Siraco with a smile, “where all the bodies are buried.”
A rare organization among Maine cemeteries, the Friends of Evergreen was founded in September 1991. Area residents “were concerned about the cemetery,” its abutting ponds, and the deteriorating condition of the Wilde Memorial Chapel, dedicated in 1902 to Samuel Wilde Jr. by his wife, Mary Ellen Wilde, Siraco said.
All municipal cemeteries are maintained by the Portland Department of City Services. Taxpayer-provided funding has declined over the years, forcing department employees to focus on essential maintenance, particularly grounds keeping, at the expense of other projects, such as the chapel.
Since 1991, the non-profit Friends of Evergreen has helped upgrade the cemetery and its facilities by undertaking such projects as:
• Restoring the Wilde Memorial Chapel. Designed to resemble a medieval European church, the nondenominational chapel has a granite-block exterior and an interior that incorporates cypress woodwork, buff-colored bricks, and stained-glass windows crafted by the Boston firm Spencer, Moakley, & Bell.
The chapel is now a popular location for weddings.
• Restoring the ponds, which are used by migratory wildfowl.
• Restoring the cemetery’s archival records back to 1869.
• Creating an Evergreen Master Cemetery Plan in 1994.
• Establishing outreach campaigns that have helped many people discover Evergreen Cemetery, a peaceful setting amidst the hub and bub of Portland, including busy Forest Avenue just a few blocks away.
Among the organizations that have provided grants for specific projects are the Davis Family Foundation, the Maine Community Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Portland Elks Lodge No. 188, the Quimby Family Foundation, and the Simmons Foundation.
Siraco became the Friends’ part-time executive director about 1½ years ago. According to Brown, the organization has “become very active” in terms of projects and outreach since Siraco assumed her position.
That outreach extends to working with civic and school groups and other organizations (including Portland Trails) interested in Evergreen. The History Docent team offers specific tours on Saturdays (10 a.m.) and Sundays (2 p.m.) from May to October; tours start at the cemetery headquarters inside the main entrance off Stevens Avenue and cost $7 per person or $5 for a Friends member.
Among the tours are “Lost at Sea,” “The Portland Rum Riot,” “Walk Down Western,” “Highlights of Evergreen,” “Artists and Artisans,” “Notable Women of Evergreen,” and “Local and Legendary: Maine in the Civil War.”
For a list of scheduled tours or to arrange a private tour, log onto www.friendsofevergreen.org; a downloadable map of the cemetery is available at this website, too.
Friends of Evergreen can also be followed on Facebook and Twitter.
Next week: Meet the Heroes of Evergreen Cemetery — Part II
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org