Friendship beneath the surface
HERSEY – Nestled among a dense clump of trees on a dusty country road, Bittner Cemetery goes unnoticed by the typical traveler.
Tilted, illegible gravestones rest in no particular pattern. A rusted white gate has marked the corner of the burial ground for as long as the oldest living relatives can recall.
Though the small resting place may be only a forgotten landmark to some, indentations in the earth a few feet from marked gravesites point to much more beneath the surface.
Stones mark the burial sites of 39 people, all neighbors or relatives of Henry Bittner, a pioneer of the Hersey area. But in the spaces where no headstones sit, stories have been passed down from generation to generation serving as the only record of some of the cemetery’s permanent guests - five Native Americans from the Chippewa tribe.
Bittner was a German man who came from Canada with his wife Mary (Alles) Bittner in 1862 and bought many sections of
land in the Reed City area. The pair lived with their eight children on a Richmond Township homestead acquired when the United States government began issuing patents for land under the Homestead Act of 1862.
Bittner, who is burried just feet from the site of the Native Americans last resting place, was said to have a trusting relationship with the Chippewas in the area. When members of the tribe died, he let his friends bury their dead in Bittner Cemetery instead of making the trek to the nearest native burial ground.
“Great-grandpa Bittner didn’t want to see the (Native Americans) carry dead bodies all the way to Mt. Pleasant for burial, so he offered the use of his cemetery,” said Helen Massey, 87, Bittner’s great-granddaughter. “There was real friendship with the Chippewas.”
Though the area pioneer led the way in establishing friendship with native residents, many other white settlers in the area had friendly encounters with them as well.
Massey tells the story of an experience had by her grandmother and great-grandmother who were not related to Bittner, but lived on Two Mile Road in Reed City, near his property.
“They were in this log cabin with a dirt floor and a fireplace and they both had their backs to the door because they’re baking bread,” Massey began.
“The door opened up and an Indian came in so quietly that they didn’t see or hear him until they had a feeling that some presence was in the room. They turned around and there stood an Indian.”
The man pointed to a fresh loaf of bread that the pair had just baked and made a noise signaling he wanted the bread. They gave him the bread and he walked out.
“They didn’t hear from him all year until the next spring and then all of a sudden one morning when they opened up their door to go outside there was a woven indian basket full of berries.” Massey said. “That was the Indian’s way of saying thank you.”
Friendship between the Chippewa tribe and the white people in the area grew over the years. When the construction of a railroad threatened to destroy their land, the tribe leaders asked Bittner to plead their case to the authorities.
“When great grandpa Bittner lived on the Hersey River, these Indians – who were his friends – came along and said, ‘We’ve got the Grand Rapids railroad going north and south and now they want to put a railroad going east and west. We Indians don’t want that,” Massey told.
They asked Bittner to write a letter to the president and beg for the railroad to be built somewhere else.
Bittner wrote the letter for them, but it didn’t produce what they hoped. In the 1870s, the railroad was constructed, despite their protest.
Though the Native Americans request for the preservation of their land was ignored in 1870, more than 100 years later their silent voice was finally heard.
In 1976, long after the last Native Americans left the area – the memory of their presence influenced the location of a U.S. highway.
“When the expressway came north from Big Rapids to Cadillac, the (Michigan State Highway Department) was debating
on which side of Reed City it was going to go,” said Wava Woods, 72, Bittner’s great-great granddaughter.
If U.S. 131 would have been placed on the east side of Reed City, it would have been constructed along 200th Avenue - through Woods’ farm and coming extremely close to Bittner Cemetery, which sits near from Woods’ property just 700 feet from 200th Avenue on 3 Mile Road.
Woods surveyed her neighbors and compiled stories from the oldest people who remembered the Native Americans or who had heard stories about the Native Americans from their parents.
“I went from house to house and I got the same stories from different families. They were the same stories, so they had to be true,” Woods said.
In 1976, Woods’ presented an environmental impact statement to the highway authorities. She told the Native American stories she had collected, gave accounts of arrowheads and artifacts being discovered in the area and said that five Native Americans were burried in Bittner Cemetery.
“Soon after that, I had a letter that said due to the content of what I had told them, (the highway) wasn’t going to happen,” she said.
Today, Woods still has the letter tucked away in a binder and U.S. 131 runs on the west side of Reed City.
Though the names of the Native Americans buried in Bittner Cemetery were not recorded, many stories of the tribe were.
“Dad (Uriah Zimmerman) always said there was an Indian chief and they never found the money he had in a copper kettle,” said Marvin Zimmerman, 66, Bittner’s great-great grandson and now the owner of Bittner cemetery.
Woods said she heard the same story from her mother, Sylvesta Schwalm, Henry Bittner’s great-granddaughter, before she passed away in the early 1980s.
“My mom would say his name was Preacher Connecticut and the Indians would bring their money to him for safekeeping because he was their spiritual leader,” Woods said.
The story continues that the Chippewa had a hearing problem and was killed by a train when the railroad came through in the 1870s. The pails of coins were never found.
In 1976, Schwalm wrote of her father, Tobias Zimmerman (Bittner’s grandson), attending school with Native American boys and finding a collection of arrow heads on his property. She wrote of the good relationship between the natives and the white settlers.
“It was also said that the Indians in the fall of the year would move their wigwams farther into the cedar swamp away from the river to be more protected from the winter cold. This was on the north side of the river in section 14 of Richmond (Township),” Schwalm wrote. “When it got extremely cold, the families with small Indian children would ask to move in with a few of the white families.
“In the Bittner Cemetery, at least five known Indians apparently from one family are burried, and one as remembered was a child. There appear to be more graves along the south and west sides. At one time there were mounds of dirt and now there are indentations in the ground that can be seen in the summer.”
A document written in 1976, records the memory of Barbara and Katie Faist, who lived in the northern portion of the same section as Bittner cemetery.
“The Indians lived on the south side of the Tuxworth place or on the few acres of the Bittner place of the railroad.
“I remember an older Indian man whose name I was told was Connecticut, who stopped at our home several times a year. Mother always gave him something to eat before he left.
“Barbara remembers that father and my brother, John attended a funeral of a child of one of the Indian families. Father and brother drove the team and wagon to take the casket to the cemetery. Burial was probably in the Bittner Cemetery,” the document reads.
Milinda (Ruppert) Ellis was born in 1887 and remembered her parents trading with the Native Americans when she was a child.
Woods’ recorded Ellis’ account in a document from 1976.
“These Indians lived in a group of wigwams along the Hersey River flats that went through (the Ruppert) farm, Richmond Township section 10. Often especially on Sundays, (Native Americans) could be seen dancing around their fire, and she can remember her family going down there then and the Indians would treat them to something like what we would call fried bread dough.
“At one time, she remembers her mother telling of at least 100 names of people, which also included Indians being buried in the Bittner Cemetery, Richmond Township section 14. Also that a lot of the graves had mounds of dirt on top like humps.”
Mable (Zimmerman) Outen, great-grandaughter of Henry Bittner born in 1905, also wrote her account in 1976.
“I heard Papa say some Indians were buried in Bittner Cemetery in the woods right near the fence by the road and one time the sand banks broke away and bones were sticking out the side of the hill and people thought it was from some Indians burried there,” she wrote.
Ruth and Omer Heinbecker, who lived in Richmond Township, also remember some Native Americans being buried in Bittner Cemetery. Their father went to school with some of the Native Americans at the Faist School, a school in Hersey established in the 1880s.
“It wasn’t long after the railroad went through that the Indians left,” they wrote.
The last native Chippewas were seen in the area in the early 1900s. Today, a collection of arrowheads donated by James Buerge, great-grandson of Henry Bittner, is displayed in a Native American exhibit at the Old Rugged Cross Museum and Historical Society in Reed City.
Though stories surrounding the Native American presence and the cemetery’s history are prevalent, some questions will forever go unanswered.
One such question is why the cemetery’s sign, made in 1985 by Sonia Peters, Bittner’s great-great granddaughter, labels the cemetery with the date of 1840 when the earliest gravestone is dated 1870 and Bittner only came to the area in 1862.
Only a cemetery deed from 1893 exists in the Osceola County courthouse and Richmond Township officials have no record of the cemetery.
The identity and number of those buried in the cemetery also is unknown. A book documenting the cemetery burials has been lost and relatives who knew the names of almost 50 people who had been buried in the cemetery have since passed away. Many of the unlabeled burials were thought to be due to an outbreak of diptheria resulting in multiple burials at once, or the price of tombstones being too high.
PRESERVATION OF HISTORY
Despite the unanswered questions surrounding Bittner Cemetery, Woods is determined to preserve what is known about the cemetery’s rich history for generations to come.
In 2010, she began the process of applying to list Bittner Cemetery in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing would protect the historic landmark from being neglected and the history would forever be recorded.
Along with recording history on paper, the Bittner clan will pass their stories to one another as the family celebrates their heritage this year.
Dozens of descendants of Henry Bittner will gather for a reunion on July 28 celebrating the 150th year of Henry Bittner’s homestead deed. The celebration will take place at Bittner’s original house, which still is standing today near Albright Park in Hersey.
“We’re the last ones who know anything about the cemetery,” Woods said. “If we don’t tell the story, no one ever will know.”