When a suggestion is made for a city to convert a cemetery into parkland or open green space, the realization that the process is not an easy one is often quickly reached. Madison, though, can take pride having successfully converted its first cemetery into its first public park.
Orton Park, located on Madison’s east side at 1100 Spaight Street in the Third Lake Ridge historic district, was originally a cemetery. The park, which encompasses an entire block, was chosen as Madison’s official cemetery—with 256 burial plots—when the community was formally recognized as a village in 1846. And the park was designated a Madison landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
But before Orton Park became Madison’s village cemetery, it was part of an area that was covered with a dense oak and hickory forest. With a considerable amount of underbrush, the block was home to an abundance of quail. Today, oak and hickory trees can still be found in the park.
Having a village cemetery was viewed as a welcome advance of civilization. But soon the block became a source of a simmering local scandal. According to the landmark nomination, editorials in the local newspapers complained that pasturing cows were desecrating graves and that the village trustees were too cheap to put up a fence. And University of Wisconsin–Madison students, it seems, even helped themselves to a pauper’s body for a study in anatomy.
Recognizing the need for a larger cemetery site, in 1857, one year after Madison became a city, the land that is now Forest Hill Cemetery was purchased by the city council for that purpose. The cemetery on the east side began to be phased out.
The process of turning the village cemetery into a public park was begun by John George Ott in 1875. Ott, an early German-Swiss immigrant to Madison, successful businessman, and entrepreneur, was active in civic affairs. He presented petitions signed by residents in his Sixth Ward to the city council to remove the cemetery. The council approved, and by 1877, all the bodies that could be found were removed from the old village cemetery and reinterred at Forest Hill Cemetery. Bodies were exhumed in the winter and transferred to Forest Hill on bobsleds.
But what to do with the land that had been occupied by the cemetery? Several ideas were advanced, including turning the land into a beer garden or opening it up to more residential development. Once more, Ott jumped into action and raised funds in 1879 to convert the land into a free public park. The money was used to transform the unsightly piece of ground.
Two years later, the city council appropriated funds to plant grass and put a fence around the park. In 1883, the Council formally named the park after Harlow S. Orton, a former Madison mayor and a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice at the time.
A suggestion that the park, or a section of it, be used for a Franciscan Sisters’ hospital prompted neighbors to finish what had been started by Ott eight years before. In May of 1887, a raking bee was held to clean up the park. A committee was appointed to supervise work on the park and to raise money. As stated in the landmark nomination, “Everybody was asked to give to the Sixth Ward ‘honor roll,’ and all who did were divided into ‘big hearts, the mediums, the small hearts, the dodgers, and the skin flints.’ Twenty iron setees were donated and set along newly laid out walks; a two-story, 18-foot, octagonal bandstand took shape in the center of the park; and gas lamps were added.”
A band concert and speeches were part of the festivities when Orton Park was officially opened on July 29, 1887. The Wisconsin State Journal editorialized, “If the entire community had the snap and enterprise of some of the Sixth Warders, Madison would be a booming city.”
Later, the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive, under the leadership of John M. Olin, took up the cause of creating public parks at the turn of the 20th century. By the time the City Board of Park Commissioners was formed in 1911, three more city parks had been created by citizen activism.
Orton Park sits in an area surrounded by a variety of building types, including churches, tiny cottages, imposing mansions, and a railroad depot. Some of the mansions around the park were designed by Claude and Starck and by Gordon and Paunack, noteworthy Madison architectural firms operating at the turn of the 20th century. According to the Madison landmark nomination, these homes complement the park, and their placement around the open park gives a Midwestern version of the New England “green” and the Spanish “plaza.”
When Life magazine featured Madison as an ideal city in 1948, Orton Park was cited as one of the country’s most attractive neighborhood parks. The park served as a focal point for neighborhood social life. Regular band concerts were held in the 1880s and early 1890s. At the turn of the 20th century, the Ladies Aid of Pilgrim Church (now the Wil-Mar Center) often held ice cream socials on the lawn. A small farmers’ market operated in the 1970s.
Today, the park continues to serve the neighborhood. The Orton Park Festival, sponsored by the Marquette Neighborhood Association (MNA), will celebrate its 54th year August 22 to 25. As one of the country’s longest-running outdoor festivals, this event is known for great music, an array of vendors from local restaurants and businesses, kids’ games, an elegant jazz brunch, a quirky auction, and trapeze artists performing under one of the park’s splendid oak trees.
What began as eight families getting together in the park the weekend before school started for a costume contest and cake walk, among other activities, has turned into a multiday community event. Thirty years ago, the MNA took over the production of the Orton Park Festival and today raises $70,000 from the festival. “All the proceeds go back into the community,” says MNA President Lynn Lee. “We support food pantries, the Eastside Express day camp, and scholarships for neighborhood students.
“There are many music festivals in the area, but the defining factor about the Orton Park Festival is its flavor. It’s all about neighborhood, community, and family,” says Lynn. “In addition to the Orton Park Festival, MNA also sponsors the Waterfront Festival, scheduled for June 8 to 9, at Yahara Place Park. It’s another family-friendly event with a distinct local focus.”
Now that spring is here, the time is right to get out into the open air and experience Madison’s earliest neighborhood park.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.