Locating a family member’s grave, with the help of a community
By Kevin Carl Brooks
The Bland cemetery sits in a quiet, lightly travelled, sandy two-track on the east side of Empire Township. The rusted old fence that surrounds it stands upright along the front but is down, buried by fallen trees and leaves everywhere else.
I leave my car in front of the small gate. There is no sound of nearby cars, only the distant sound of vehicles traveling the Benzie Trail. Bird songs and small animals scuffing through the leaves are the sounds that greet me as I stand in the morning sun.
The small cemetery is dotted by trees that give varying shades of light and dark to the mossy ground. The few lonely gravestones stand as witness to a small community that once called this corner of Leelanau home. I walk to the center of the open space and turn slowly to look at the entire cemetery.
“Where is she?”
I received a phone call from Texas in early July from my cousin Don. That call sent me racing north to see his sister, my cousin Betty, who still lives at Springdale Farm in Empire. Much of the summers of my youth were spent at Uncle Frank and Aunt Louise’s farm on Welch Road.
When I was young, we could still easily see Little Glen Lake above the trees from the farm, and from the big hill behind the barn, we could see the top of the dunes.
Aunt Louise was my dad’s older sister. There was enough of an age difference between them that, to us kids, she was almost like another grandmother. She and Uncle Frank exuded kindness and love, and laughter was a bandage for life’s ills at the farm.
Many trips north from Grand Rapids put us there after dark, and we would wake in the strange surroundings in the morning, until we remembered where we were and the covers flew off!
Recently, there was talk of selling Springdale. My fear was selfish, as every memory I had of the farm came crowding back, and I feared losing the place of my memories.
My cousins are older than I am by at least 10 to 15 years, and Springdale Farm is home to them. My point of view shifted and, with it, my desire shifted. I wanted to know more about the farm and about my family. There is more here than just the summers of my youth.
Betty and I poured over photographs of people that I did not know. I learned that there were about five families in the area who homesteaded around the same time and came into the United States from the same place in Canada—the Welch and Payment families probably knew each other before they made the trek to Leelanau.
Without a scanner, I used the camera on my phone to make digital copies of as many photos as I could, and I still haven’t gotten them all. Over the summer, I made frequent overnight trips to see Betty and to make more copies.
I also visited cemeteries to see who was where. One name that I could not find at first: Andrew Frances Payment, my great-grandfather, who went by Frank. I asked Betty about him.
“Oh, he’s buried in the Catholic cemetery. A lot of the Payments are there.”
I found him and his parents, and a few others. One grave was missing. Where was Lizzie? Where was my great-grandma? I knew she had died quite young, so I did not really expect her to be there at Philip Neri, but where was she?
I had stopped at the Catholic cemetery on my way out of town, and that one thought captured my mind all the way back home. Where was Lizzie?
Reaching out to my cousins from Empire, I learned that family tradition had her buried in the Bland Cemetery but that there was no permanent marker placed, and unfortunately, there was no one left alive who could place her there.
I had already begun to use my Facebook page for posting stories and little bits of family history. They had been well received, so with dual motives of telling a story and getting word to anyone local to Empire Township, I posted the series ‘Finding Lizzie’ to my page and to the Glen Arbor group in the hope that someone may know something or may know how to find information on Lizzie.
It did not take long before people I had never met took up the gauntlet that I had thrown down and began searching the internet and searching the local cemeteries for the missing Lizzie Payment.
I had no reason to doubt family tradition, but there were internet searches that indicated that she might have been buried in another cemetery, so I kept looking—and people in the community kept looking.
Her death certificate was found, along with an archived article from the Traverse City Record-Eagle from March 25, 1910, that had her interred at the Bland Cemetery.
Connecting with my cousin Leigh Payment in Empire brought out the only two photographs known to carry her likeness, and one of which I had a vague recollection of seeing in another setting—perhaps at Grandma Brooks’ house, since she is the babe in the photograph.
Cousin Leigh had plat maps available to him through the Empire Museum. A visit to Frank and Lizzie’s homestead on South Plowman Road revealed the foundation, well, and watering trough for their own farm, as well as a couple of ancient apple trees that remain of their orchard.
This was where Lizzie, ever so briefly, left her mark on the world. About a half-mile west on Oviat Road, the sandy two-track, lies the Bland Cemetery.
I’ve received permission from Empire Township to place a marker for Lizzie in that little cemetery in the woods. We do not know where in the cemetery she lies, but we know that she is there.
My journey to find her has been not just about finding a grave. It has been about finding out who she was as best I can, and in the process, I have found out who I am. Any journey to discover family becomes, in large part, a discovery of self.
Empire, Glen Arbor, the farm—all had a draw for my family. There was an allure for my parents, and there is still for myself and my siblings.
My older brother is a stonemason. While discussing the marker construction, we laughed and cried at remembered seasons Up North. And we wondered at what it was about Springdale Farm and Empire that drew us as a family.
Life can be hard. It was harder in the early 20th century, when Lizzie still walked among us. We think we know what the draw was. Uncle Frank and Aunt Louise knew.
Lizzie Bella Payment married at age 16 in 1903. She bore Great-Aunt Mary in 1904, bore my grandmother Adeline in 1906, bore Great-Uncle Charlie in 1909, and died of infection from tonsillitis in March 1910. Penicillin would not be accidentally discovered for another 18 years. She was described in the Record-Eagle as “a kind and good neighbor.”
Kevin Carl Brooks is an aspiring writer. He lives in Dorr, south of Grand Rapids. Look for him on Facebook or at his blog DoingLifeWrite.com
A version of this article originally published in the Glen Arbor Sun, a semi-sister publication to The Betsie Current.