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Saving Pere Cheney, Part 3: Link to the Past

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the third part in a series of stories on the ghost town Pere Cheney and its popular cemetery. Different groups want to save this historical site from vandalism which threatens to destroy it. The problem between the groups is the ideas on how to save it often clash, leaving frustration on both sides.)

Beaver Creek Township Supervisor, Kim VanNuck, grew up in Grayling, coming from the Wakely and Galloway families, who have their roots in the area.

“My interest in local history started with family,” says Kim. “Then I started in this online group and began researching family histories for people. I would get death certificates for people. Then people wanted to know where someone was buried, so I started going out to the cemeteries and taking pictures.”

Kim did this all for free, just to help other people out.

Later she was employed by the Crawford County Library where she became known as their history gal. She worked in their archives and did transcription work among other tasks.

Her interest in local history and especially cemeteries continued to grow the more she learned about the area.

“[At first] I hated Pere Cheney,” she laughs. “I wouldn’t go there. Every time I went there something [bad] happened to me. But then, I started digging into its history. Now, it’s an obsession.”

Eventually, she came to work for Beaver Creek Township. Preserving the Pere Cheney cemetery became one of her goals, despite previous township board members saying nothing could be done for it.

Vandalism had taken its toll on the graveyard over the years. Kim worked hard with Brian Ashton to find ways to protect it. Tombstones would be replaced only to have them destroyed by vandals again.

Kim decided the replacement costs were getting too expensive. So, she had a stone made at the entrance naming the various families buried there. Since then, a security light has been installed and new security cameras are being readied.

Kim is also the one who places flags on the veterans’ graves each year.

When the township was approached by the Amber’s Pere Cheney Restoration Fund (APCRF) group about their thoughts on preserving the cemetery, Kim was excited. She liked many of the ideas they presented.

Kim wants to put up a new wrought iron fence around the cemetery and APCRF wants to build a new gate. Kim would like to have the area where the town stood designated as a historical district and APCRF would like to post signs throughout the area showing where businesses and houses of people buried there once lived.

It all sounds like it should work. However, there have been problems.

A major goal of Amber’s group has been to bury the ashes of Amber Lynn Skutt there. Amber was a 25-year-old college student from Roscommon who loved to come to the cemetery to relax, before her tragic death in a car crash. Since the cemetery had not been closed, Amber’s grandmother, Amy Schade, thought getting permission would be easy.

Kim notes burying someone there is more complicated than it sounds. The original records to the cemetery were lost in a fire and current records are incomplete. Not all graves have grave stones anymore and many do not have markers. The township knows there are even mass graves in the cemetery, but the locations are unknown.

Amy says she has found a company who will do ground-penetrating sonar on the area to locate all the graves. However, when Kim talked to sonar people at area universities, they concluded because the cemetery is so old and no vaults were used, finding the graves would be impossible.

Kim says she wants to work with APCRF, but its members have proven to be stubborn and impatient at times.

This past summer, APCRF set up a day for the public to tour the cemetery, but failed to fill out the necessary legal paperwork with the township to make it possible. The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department was called in.

Clashes like this have left both sides hurt and frustrated with the other.

Both Kim and Amy are looking forward to Amy and members of APCRF’s upcoming trip to Lansing to look over records the State may have of the Pere Cheney cemetery. If the State does indeed have copies of the records, as some believe, these records could be bring both the township and APCRF closer to making their dreams come true.

Until more information comes in and Kim hears back from professionals on various issues, she continues to work toward preserving the cemetery in any way she can.

Recently, Kim came up with the idea of a fundraising drive for the wrought iron fence. The township is selling Pere Cheney t-shirts, sweat shirts and hoodies to raise money. Prices vary from $12 to $30, with XXL and XXXL sizes being about $3 more.

Pere Cheney shirts are available at the Beaver Creek Township Hall, 8888 South Grayling Road, Grayling. For more information, contact their office at (989) 275-8878.





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