The cemetery where the body of Hillsdale College’s first president, Daniel McBride Graham, lies has fallen to disrepair in the past few decades.
After learning of the situation at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Pennsylvania, Visiting Associate Professor of Classics Joshua Fincher took juniors Joe Toates and Calvin Zabrocki to examine the area and see how Hillsdale College could improve it. Because Graham’s plot has no headstone to mark it, the president’s office plans to coordinate with Graham’s descendants in the coming years to place a headstone or plant something near the site.
Graham was a major figure in the Free Will Baptist movement. Fincher said he was “incredibly devoted to education and to spreading his denomination’s principles.”
Graham spent a lot of time founding colleges and churches within the denomination. Hillsdale College was one of the first that he helped establish.
In October of 1844, 27-year-old Graham became the first president of Hillsdale College, then called Michigan Central College, in Spring Arbor. The school opened with only five students in a small, deserted, two-room store. He resided there until he moved to Saco, Maine, in 1848 to become a Free Will Baptist minister.
In the time between his two presidencies at Hillsdale College, Graham founded Bates College in Maine and operated the Free Will Baptist Church in New York City. He also spent several years working in real estate.
When President James Calder resigned from his position at Hillsdale College in 1871 and the first two men to whom the college offered the position declined, the college trustees asked Graham to return.
Graham was very active in fundraising for the college endowment, especially after a fire in 1874 destroyed most of the sole college building. Graham was instrumental in the decision to rebuild campus as multiple buildings so as to prevent such major damage from occurring again. This led to the construction of central hall that is presently on the campus of Hillsdale College.
After his work with the college, Graham moved to Chicago in 1875 to work in real estate again. In 1879, Graham retired near family in Philadelphia, where he died in 1888.
In the 1960s, the family that owned the cemetery gradually allowed sections of it to become forestland because they did not have a lot of money.
“The family passed away in the 1990s, and the board of directors that were to govern the cemetery also died in the early 2000s,” Fincher said.
When Fincher lived in Philadelphia around 2008, the state of the cemetery was “quite disastrous and actually somewhat dangerous.” Because of the illegal burials, vandalism, and violence that occured in the overgrown area, the cemetery had become “a big issue for the city,” Fincher said.
In March 2011, the city was informed through news reports and citizen phone calls that Mount Moriah had ended its business operations. From that time to the present, a volunteer organization called Friends of Mount Moriah has worked to restore the area.
“We wanted to clean things up. To make things right,” Ken Smith, board treasurer of the organization, said. “There are 180,000 souls interred in that cemetery, but it was not a place where anyone interested in visiting their loved ones would want to go and do so.”
When researching the current state of the cemetery in the fall of 2018, Fincher discovered on Wikipedia that Graham was one of the notable people buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery. He reached out to Friends of Mount Moriah to investigate the matter, and the organization helped him find the plot.
The organization had started clearing the area where Graham was buried in 2017, because it was especially full of trash and overgrown trees and shrubs.
Fincher informed Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn of his discovery, and the president’s office decided to send a small group to the cemetery with Fincher, who was willing to use the first half of spring break for the expedition.
“We wanted to follow this up,” president’s office research assistant Soren Geiger said. “We decided that the right thing to do was to send a team to the college from the cemetery to meet the volunteer organization and demonstrate that we want to care for our first president’s resting place.”
Geiger asked Toates if he wanted to go on the trip because he had been a student of Fincher’s before and has worked in the president’s office for multiple years. Toates was instructed to bring along a friend, so he took his housemate Zabrocki.
The students noted that Mount Moriah Cemetery was in noticeable disrepair. Toates said gravestones “had tumbled down the hill and onto the highway that cuts the cemetery in half.”
At Graham’s gravesite, the only markers were four stones, each engraved with the letter “G,” at the corners of the 6 by 6 foot plot. “No headstone, no nothing,” Zabrocki said.
“It was just a nondescript patch of ground,” Toates added.
The group did some prodding around the plot to see if they could find any signs of a headstone, but could not find a headstone in the time they had. “More than likely, there is a headstone there, but we couldn’t find it,” Zabrocki said.
Toates said the “main oddity is that there was nothing marking it, and it’s in a rundown area, so any marker or beautification of the spot would be nice.”
Fincher emphasized that it is important to honor the founders of Hillsdale College.
“We went because we really cared about honoring Reverend Graham,” Fincher said. “At Hillsdale, we talk about our founders all the time. Graham is someone who is key to our past, so we wanted to generate ideas about what we might do to maintain that link and make sure he gets what he is owed.”