Photo Credit: Frank Kovalchek

Exploring the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area: Woodlawn Cemetery

f21-1ANALYZING CEMETERY FOR DEMOGRAPHIC DATA

Location:  Woodlawn Cemetery – Seward

From Seward Highway, turn East onto NASH RD then LEFT  immediately after RAIL ROAD TRACKS.  Follow main road for about 1 mile.

Short Description: The Woodlawn Cemetery was the first formal Seward city cemetery.  It offers an opportunity for students to look at data from a number of perspectives then learn the dangers of following assumptions when conducting research.

Required Equipment: Clipboards, graph paper (to create map), regular paper (for notes)

Suggested Equipment: Calculators

Safety Consideration: Safety issues are low.  However, safety of the resource must be considered.  Please take care of the markers (many are in decayed shape) and please respect the site.

f21-2Other Info: Note: No restrooms available.

Instructional Strategies:

The Woodlawn Cemetery was a final resting place during the years that Seward was a fledgling community. Because of the limited time span (marked graves span from about 1902 to about 1928) and small concise data size (about 50 marked sites) it allows students to construct their own research question in which to collect, quantify, and display data. That in itself is a worth the trip.

But perhaps a greater lesson beyond the information they obtain, is how any conclusions that they can draw is either a) built upon assumptions b) misleading or c) down right incorrect. In fact, by itself, there is very little hard proof that can actually be discerned from the grave yard.  However, the cemetery does provide a valuable spring board for questions to explore.

To Begin:

The teacher might consider just having the students mill around for a bit getting a “lay of the land” and getting a sense of what the cemetery has to offer in the form of data. Again, stress safety of the resource and respect for the community. Many markers are decayed and fragile. Please refrain from touching.

Tell students that they are about to use this cemetery as a research source. Their first job is to come up with a strategy for extracting information from this site.

After a few minutes of exploring, bring the class back together and poise two questions:

a) What is the problem with collecting data using markers? (Answer: Not all graves are marked. Some have more information than others.)

b) What are some possible research questions and strategies that can be extracted using this site:

1) Age of deceased (looking for patterns or longevity)

2) Year of Death (looking for trends throughout the years)

3) Month/Season of Death (Was there a particular time of year that experienced more fatalities.)

4) Other?

Students do not need to limit themselves to a single question; rather they can explore any or all of these . . . but how to gather, collate, and display their data? That’s the question. It will likely take a couple false starts. Encourage students to start over collecting data until they’ve found a satisfactory technique for gathering and analyzing the data. Once the students have compiled their data they can take a stab at making some conclusion . . . Or perhaps just assumptions.

Here’s a sample of what the “crunched” data set might look like (NOTE: Numbers may vary due to addition of more markers or decay of current ones).

f21-4

So . . . What can be concluded from this data?

Very Little. And perhaps this is the biggest lesson of all. It’s easy when using resource (primary or not) to become sucked into making assumptions without fully validating the facts that are uncovered.

The Problem with Woodlawn:

The problem with using Woodlawn Cemetery for drawing conclusions is within its history. Simply, this hallowed ground is not a complete data set.

When Seward was first founded it was squeezed between the area surrounding the SeaLife Center and the current Jefferson Street (which was actually the sometimes raging Lowell Creek which created the outwash debris field that the town rests upon.) During the early days, the dearly deceased were planted all around the town, often in backyards. At one time Boulder Field (the gravel baseball field in town) and the land currently occupied by the hospital were once organized graveyards.

With the ever-present issue of Lowell Creek flooding and the need to expand the town, the Woodlawn property was purchased by the city in 1916. This location provided a pleasant resting place out of town with good access (the railroad ran adjacent to the property). The gravesites in town were exhumed and relocated from the city to this site. Unfortunately, Salmon Creek proved as fickle as Lowell Creek and it caused a rise in the water table making the Woodlawn site unsuitable for future burials and problematic for many that were already laid to rest at the site.

By the mid 1920’s the Woodlawn cemetery was decommissioned and many of its inhabitants were again moved to the current location in Seward behind the City Chamber of Commerce, where hopefully they can finally rest in peace.

 

f21-5

However, perhaps the lesson of Woodlawn isn’t in the ANSWERS . . . But rather the QUESTIONS:

Perhaps by itself the Woodlawn Cemetery is short on conclusions. However, the benefit of this site (and other cemeteries as well) is not in the answers . . . but rather the questions that it provokes. What were the age demographics in Seward in the early days of the town? How was Seward effected by the flu epidemic of 1918. And what happened in the fall of 1916 for so many to perish in such a small town?

These are the compelling questions that Woodlawn poses… but can’t readily satisfy. It’s up to the researcher to look to other sources to delve into these issues.

f21-3