I was recently in the Research Room at the Evanston Historical Society (EHS) looking up some information for one of the stories I was writing for this blog. I easily found what I was looking for and was in no hurry to leave, so I went to the EHS's Subject files and pulled the folder for Rosehill Cemetery. True, Rosehill Cemetery is not in Evanston, but so many Evanstonians are buried there that the EHS started keeping a file on Rosehill. There was a lot of interesting information in the folder, but one clipping caught my attention:
The article was from the Reader in 1987 and looked like a perfect story for this blog. After all I had written many stories about Rosehill, and they were some of the most frequently read stories in this blog. Many Chicagoans were familiar with the story of the late Helen Sclair, the "Cemetery Lady" who lived at Bohemian National Cemetery but this story seemed to be even better - a man who was born at Rosehill Cemetery and planned to die there. So, sit back and let's see what we can "dig up" about Nick Mayer, starting with whether or not he was actually born at Rosehill.
Nickolaus Majer, Junior was born October 29, 1915 at 2152 Peterson Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Nickolaus Majer, Senior (1887-1961) and Justine Oklestek (1884-1977).
Nick's father was born in Bararc, Hungary. I was unable to verify exactly when he came to the US. Nick's mother was born in Vienna, Austria and immigrated to the US on August 18, 1911.
Nickolaus Mayer and Justine Oklestek were married in Chicago on November 19, 1912.
Was Nick Mayer, Jr. actually born in Rosehill Cemetery? Kind of. In 1910 Nick's father took a job with Rosehill Cemetery and as part of his job he was given a simple frame house that sat next to the Park Addition Section of the cemetery. That's the part of Rosehill that's along the north side of Peterson Avenue and contains nothing but flush grave markers that are set into the ground. Nick Mayer was born in this house:
(Note: While doing the research for this story I found many different spellings of the names. Nick and his father were originally named "Nickolaus" and the last name was spelled "Majer," "Meier," "Meyer," and "Mayer." To keep my sanity I will use the American spellings of first names and "Mayer" for the last name unless the source document shows something different.)
Nick Mayer had four siblings: William (1914-mmmm), Robert O. (1919-1919), Margaret (1921-2012), and Julius Jack (1925-1986). In the article for the Reader, Nick Mayer talked about the loss of his brother Robert who was born March 8, 1919 and died July 5, 1919.
He related to the interviewer that "Over by the Peterson Avenue fence," his brother lies in a mass grave that was dug with a bulldozer to accommodate victims of an influenza epidemic around 1920.
The 1920 US Census finds the Mayer family still living at 2152 W. Peterson Avenue. The Head of Household "Nick Mayo" was twenty-four years old, and had been born in Hungary. He immigrated in 1913 (sic); was a Resident Alien and could both read and write. His Native Tongue was Hungarian. He was a "Laborer in a Greenhouse," and his house was rented.
His wife, "Christina Mayo" was twenty- three years old, and was born in Austria. She too had immigrated in 1913 (sic) and her Native Tongue was German. She was also a Resident Alien and could read and write. Both Nick and Christina could speak English.
They told the census taker that they had two sons: Seven year old "William Mayo" and five year old "Nick Mayo."
In the late 1920s, Rosehill decided to tear down the house at 2152 W. Peterson. Mayer's mother never cared too much for living in Rosehill or for the funerary business. Every time Mayer's mother told somebody what her husband did for a living, they wanted to know if he gave discounts on funerals.
But Mayer told the Reader that he took to life in the graveyard from the start. There were fish to catch, ducks to chase, and plenty of places to hide when he got in trouble, which was often. He romped among the gravestones of Civil War heroes and snuck into the central mausoleum for games of hide-and-seek. He was teased at school, but even that wasn't so bad.
The 1930 US Census finds the "Nick Meier" family living at 6052 N. Ridge Avenue in Chicago. Not adjacent to the Rosehill grounds, but not too far away either. Senior citizen housing sits on that spot today. The family consisted of forty-three year old Nick, forty-four year old Justine, sixteen year old William, fifteen year old Nick, nine year old Margaret, and four year old Julius.
They rented their apartment for $40.00 per month. The family had a radio, and now said their native language was "German." Nick Sr. and Justine both said they were naturalized US citizens (they weren't - she was naturalized in 1944, he was naturalized in 1945).
Nick Mayer attended Senn High School during the school year. In the summers he worked at Rosehill. The first summer he mowed the grass. In 1934 after graduation from Senn, he went to work for Rosehill full time.
But it was not just work and the departed that took young Nick Mayer's time. On September 30, 1936 Nick Mayer married Florence H. Austerlade (1917-1967) of Chicago. The groom was twenty years old; the bride was nineteen. After their marriage, they rented an apartment at 5610 N. Western Avenue in Chicago - which is right across the street from the Western Avenue gate of Rosehill.
What was it like at Rosehill during the Great Depression? Nick reported that sometimes there were as many as 15 funerals a day at Rosehill. Caskets, mourners and picnickers alike were brought to the cemetery by the train that stopped at Rosehill's entrance. On Sundays, there were so many visitors that Mayer and his coworkers had to direct traffic.
Once at the cemetery, visitors could ride a bus along the 25 miles of roads that crisscross Rosehill. The bus driver sold dandelion wine and cherry liquor on the side. In the winter visitors could warm themselves by an outside fireplace, and in the summer they could cook on the cemetery barbecue. A conservatory was filled with mums and gladiolas and a clock made out of flowers rang out the hour. Chinese pheasants and swans adorned the four ponds.
Working at Rosehill in those days was not an easy job. Mayer remembered, "All the graves had to be dug by hand back then. For a 10 AM funeral as many as ten men would start at 4AM to dig the grave." There were also acres to mow and miles of hallways in the mausoleum to scrub. During the winter months, most of the workers would spend their days in the mausoleum polishing the marble floors and halls by hand. Nick Mayer also manned the pump house that used to supply the cemetery with water. At the height of the Depression, 300 men at thirty-five cents per hour kept Rosehill spic and span.
The Great Depression finally ended but then World War II came on the scene. Like all good American men, Nick registered for the draft on October 16, 1940:
On May 1, 1941 Nick and his wife left Western Avenue and were living at 5220 N. Damen in Chicago:
On June 1, 1942 Nick Mayer enlisted in the US military with the rank of Private. He was 5' 9" tall and weighed 149 lbs. After reporting his civilian profession the Army said he was a "semiskilled mechanic and repairmen." As with all the others who enlisted in World War II, Nick enlisted for the "Duration of the War plus six months." He reported his time in the military as uneventful and returned to Rosehill after the war was over.
Nick and his wife Florence were blessed with two children: Leonard N. (b. 1956) and Arlene (b. 1957). Neither had any interest in following their father into the cemetery business.
Things at Rosehill began to change in the 1950s, not long after Nick Mayer was promoted to Foreman. The grave diggers had unionized and the resulting high labor costs made it to expensive to have all the extras at Rosehill. Besides, by the 1950s the number of funerals had dropped off because people were living longer. Mourners were not coming as often or quit coming at all. Picnickers abandoned Rosehill for the parks. "Death," said Nick Mayer, "had become a less congenial business."
Nick Meyer was asked by the Reader reporter which were his favorites among the thousands of monuments at Rosehill. His answer will not surprise you:
Nick Mayer's father Nick died in 1961; his mother Justine in 1977. They are both buried in Section 29 in the Park Section of Rosehill Cemetery in an area that is "where the family garden used to be, near the site of their old home":
Nick Mayer experienced tragedy on his own life when his wife Florence died from leukemia in October of 1967 leaving him with two young children to raise. For a final resting place he bought four plots in Section 16: for Florence, for himself, and for their two children. Here is her Death Notice from the Chicago Tribune of October 24, 1967:
Nick was too broken up to even attend the funeral. "The cemetery workers did a nice job because it was for me." Even though he spent his days nearby, Mayer stayed away from his wife's grave for a long time.
Nick Mayer died May 20, 1993. He was seventy-seven years old. Here is his Death Notice from the Chicago Tribune of May 24, 1993:
He was, of course, buried next to his beloved wife in the plot they picked for themselves in Section 16 of Rosehill Cemetery:
The other two graves in the plot were not used by Nick's children - they were instead used for Nick's sister Margaret Wills and her husband Claude.
When asked about the plot Nick and Florence picked for themselves at Rosehill, Nick said, "I picked the spot with my wife. She is already here." "They chose the spot," he said. "because it had some height, which they liked."
"I was born here, I might as well die here." says Mayer.
Nick Mayer - born at Rosehill, spent his life at Rosehill, resting at Rosehill. May he rest in peace.