Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll brings Huntsville history to life

single-meta-cal October 10, 2017

It’s a pretty ritzy neighborhood when you get back down to it. Celebrity-filled.

And, once a year, they all get together for one amazing block party.

There are the glamorous, like Tallulah Bankhead, and the nefarious, like “The Black Widow of Hazel Green.” There are the engagingly naughty, like the magnanimous madam Mollie Teal, and the brush-with-greatness, like David Todd, the ex-Confederate soldier who was brother-in-law to the Union commander in chief, President Abraham Lincoln.

Maple Hill Cemetery in downtown Huntsville covers 77-plus acres of land, much of it redolent in the city’s history. It’s the site of the annual Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, this Sunday between 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. (rain date: Oct. 22), which celebrates that history with local folks assuming the attire and the persona of various notable buried there.

The people in characters research and learn everything about the characters. Even the notorious ones are charming.” — Van Brown

Some 74 characters will be participating, standing near the gravesites of those who have inspired the re-creations. They perform brief monologues that tell the tales of Huntsville’s historic dearly departed.

“Our actors research and learn everything about the characters,” says Van Brown, chairman of the Huntsville Pilgrimage Association. “They put themselves in first person and they’re telling the stories. That’s what draws a crowd. Even the notorious ones are charming.”

The Huntsville Pilgrimage Association sponsors the Stroll. There is no charge for visitors, but donations are welcomed. The funds raised help in the preservation of Maple Hill. Since the Stroll’s inception in 1989, some $400,000 has been raised, which has enabled the restoration of more than 1,650 monuments and other facets.

Nearly two centuries old

Maple Hill Cemetery, which opened in 1822 and has had between 80,000 to 100,000 burials according to cemetery officials, was part of the estate of LeRoy Pope, one of Huntsville’s early settlers. As the cemetery expanded later in the century, it encompassed the plot in which Pope and his family are buried.

His grandson, LeRoy Pope Walker, is also at Maple Hill. He was the first Secretary of War for the Confederacy and is said to have ordered the first attack on Fort Sumter, triggering the Civil War. Later, Walker served as defense attorney for the outlaw Frank James.


There are five U.S. Senators (John Williams Walker, Clement Comer Clay, Jeremiah Clemens, Clement Claiborne Clay and John Sparkman) interred at Maple Hill, as well as five Alabama governors (Thomas Bibb, Clement Comer Clay, Reuben Chapman, Robert Patton and David Lewis), and a number of those are portrayed during the Stroll.

Another land donor was Russel Erskine, who invested in one of Huntsville’s first grand luxury hotels. Truth be told, the builders thought if they named it for Erskine, by then the president of Studebaker Motors, he would be extra-generous in his investment.

A mausoleum he built to entomb his family is one of the most striking landmarks at Maple Hill. Erskine joined his family there in 1933, having committed suicide when Studebaker nearly collapsed during the Great Depression.

Colorful characters

The colorful characters abound at the Stroll. There is Tallulah Bankhead, the flamboyant actress and Huntsville native; though she is not buried at Maple Hill, her parents are. There is the Gypsy woman, whose gravesite and actual name are unknown.

There are Mollie Teal, whose house of ill repute was donated to the community and became the first building for Huntsville Hospital, and the “Black Widow of Hazel Green,” whose six husbands shared a terrible knack for dying mysterious and untimely deaths.

One of the most popular Stroll figures who always churns up a large crowd isn’t actually buried at Maple Hill. But her owner is.

Lily Flagg was a 950-pound Jersey cow who was the world’s largest butter-producer in 1892. She produced nearly a half-ton of butter, more than six times the average cow.

She’s served as namesake to everything from a neighborhood to a microbrew, and she’s there at The Stroll in costume with her owner, Samuel Moore.

Like 73 others, she’s also there in spirit.