In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 6:08 PM on Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hickerson Cemetery: A quiet place with a great view

In our own backyard

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


 

Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

The best seat at Hickerson Cemetery may be a hand hewn log bench facing north.

High up on Diamond Ridge beyond Homer city limits — but still on city land — sits a park whose beauty often comes with tears. Views of Kachemak Bay, Seldovia, Cape Douglas, Augustine Volcano and Mount Iliamna spread before you. Fields of fireweed surround the park. Mowed lawns and clusters of wildflowers decorate the landscape.

You can even own part of the park, and at $200 a lot, you can't beat the price. There's only one catch.

You have to die to stay there.

People still blessed not to experience grief and a graveside service might not know Hickerson Memorial Cemetery. Others may know it from Memorial Day services. One of two official city cemeteries — the other is Pioneer Cemetery, on East End Road — Hickerson embodies the history and spirit of the community.

"Some people like how independent and Alaskan it is," said Public Works inspector Dan Gardner, the official tasked with managing the cemetery. "Some people would like it to be more manicured, like Forest Lawn."

Living on Diamond Ridge, I often drive by it. With its chain link fence and simple shed-roof shelter, it doesn't look like much from the road. I first came to know the cemetery in covering Memorial Day ceremonies. Usually I'd arrive early to photograph veterans' graves decorated with U.S. flags and then stay for services. In the morning spring sun, the flags glowed, and fluttering in the wind, beat out a somber cadence like the steps of horses pulling a caisson.

Sometimes I'd see veterans or members of the American Legion, Legion Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars walking among the graves and paying their respects. Last May, I watched a World War II veteran and his Vietnam War veteran son visit the fresh grave of their wife and mother.

Hickerson Cemetery has no graves of service members killed in combat, but a lot of the graves mark those who have seen combat. Darlene Sheldon, a longtime American Legion Post 16 Auxiliary member, said the legion buys 160 flags a year to put in brass markers the legion installs on veterans' graves. They use most of the flags. The eldest veteran might be Barthold Jacobson, born Aug. 24, 1868, and died March 19, 1961, who fought in World War I.

You can find graves of veterans of all wars through Vietnam.

The American Legion acquired the cemetery from Jiggs Tice. In April 1970 the legion sold the 3.43-acre parcel with 806 platted graves to the city for $10. The city spent another $205,000 in 2010 to buy three lots to the west for expansion. In 2009, Hickerson had 123 lots available. Many lots have been purchased by families, for future resting places by loved ones already interred.


 

Families' personal touches are respected, including this brass bed headboard.

Aside from mowing, Gardner said the city doesn't spend much on maintenance. Some gravestones lie flush to the ground. Many memorials rise above. Some graves aren't even marked, like that of "Jane Doe" Brown, interred Sept. 21, 1979.

Quite a few graves have been decorated with flower gardens, beautiful stones, statues and other bits of character. One grave has a brass boat propeller, another a wooden airplane prop. There are hand-carved wooden plaques, simple white wooden crosses and hand chiseled stones. One grave has a brass bed headboard. White beach rocks surround Irwin Ravin's grave, with sand covering it. Visiting the cemetery recently, I saw a family of sandhill cranes wandering the cemetery that had left tracks in the sand. Irwin would have liked that, I think.

In the northeast corner lies the namesake of the cemetery's grave, that of Glen H. "Tex" Hickerson, an Alaska bush pilot.

"It is so beautiful here you almost feel like you are flying," Hickerson is quoted as saying in "Alaska Kenai Peninsula Death Record and Cemeteries" by the Kenai Totem Tracers, published in 1983.

Born March 19, 1923, Hickerson died Aug. 27, 1951, in a plane crash while taking off in Seldovia. Jiggs Tice donated a burial plot for his friend. An old photo shows Hickerson's grave in open pasture, but it's now surrounded by a majestic spruce tree.

Ray Kranich Jr., whose family lived on Diamond Ridge before moving to town in 1945, remembers some amusing and poignant burials. Once some Elks Lodge members dug a grave in the spring for a fellow Elk, also named Tex, but the hole filled with water. They put the casket in the hole, but it kept floating up as they put dirt on top.

"Finally we got enough dirt on old Tex he stayed down," Kranich said. "He wasn't about to stay down in the hole."

Peninsula Memorial Chapel and Homer Funeral Home does most of the burials there. A woman in Soldotna digs the graves, winter or summer, using a jackhammer in the winter to break through frozen dirt, said B.J. Elder, one of the funeral directors. Sometimes families want to dig graves themselves or set their own headstones, he said.

The city does minimal maintenance and doesn't trim around grave sites and headstones. Families' personal touches get respected, but that can mean flowers, pushki, fireweed and orange hawkweed, an invasive plant, obscure many graves. Hawkweed is endemic at the cemetery and would cover the grass if not mowed back. Service organizations clean up Hickerson before Memorial Day.

Benches have been set up around the cemetery to sit, admire the view and contemplate those who have passed. The best seat is a hand hewn log bench facing north with a glorious view of what many first saw when they rounded that corner on Baycrest Hill.

We all have to die, our remains either cremated and cast to wind and sea, or bodies buried. For a final resting place, there's no better spot than Hickerson Memorial Cemetery.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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