Between paper bags filled with candles at Pine Hill Cemetery stood people who inhabited Auburn long ago, who haven’t walked the city streets in many years.
Each year the Auburn Heritage Association puts on a lantern cemetery tour at Pine Hill Cemetery to share the history of Auburn’s important residents, using actors to portray them. This year’s tour took place Thursday and Friday nights.
The tour follows a lantern-lit path in the cemetery after sundown with periodic stops to visit with the people resting in the graves.
Volunteers dress up each year for one night to embody the personality of famous Auburn citizens.
Daniel Lehr, one of the tour guides Thursday night, told guests that there are five Auburn University presidents buried in Pine Hill: James Ferguson Dowdell, William Leroy Broun, Charles Cullman Thach, Luther Noble Duncan and Ralph Draughon.
The tour began with a stop at the grave of John Madison Thomas. Bill Friel, who represented his great-grandfather, Thomas, had a poster board set up with photos.
Thomas owned three acres in Auburn and in 1897 built a structure that would become the Thomas Hotel in 1900. Friel had pictures of what the building once looked like.
The Thomas Hotel was in place until 1962 when it was torn down.
The tour continued among Pine Hill’s winding path to stops at several historical graves such as those of Red and Luckie Meagher, Charles Allen Cary, Capt. John Howard Wills and unknown dead from a mass grave.
Each volunteer dressed in costume to represent their character, and some had props at the graves.
“(It’s been rewarding) to try to keep alive the history behind the people who have been so instrumental in the development of our community over what, 170 years,” said Sam Hendrix, who portrayed the founding dean of the Auburn vet school and was buried in Pine Hill in 1935. “Every grave out here is somebody who was, for the most part, really important in the history of either the town or the college.”
Red Meagher was played by Charles Hendrix, vice president of the Auburn Heritage Association. Meagher and his wife, Luckie, owned a diner, called The Doll House on West Glenn Avenue.
Luckie Meagher also started a kindergarten in Auburn and was instrumental in starting the speech and hearing clinic.
Hendrix had brought dolls and props with him to set out beside the grave, including a chair from Luckie Meagher’s kindergarten.
Red Meagher built all of the chairs Luckie used, and beside the chair, Hendrix had set the plans which can be used to build a replica chair just like the ones Luckie Meagher used.
Blake Busbin portrayed a man called Judge John Jackson Harper, who was the founder of the city of Auburn and is laid to rest in Pine Hill.
Busbin is a U.S. history teacher at Auburn High School and said that he has always enjoyed helping people become more informed.
“I’ve always been involved in helping the community learn more about the history of the area and (the Auburn Heritage Association) reached out to me this fall and asked if I would help, and I was glad to do so to help our community understand the history of the town,” he said.
Near the end of a tour was a surprising sight — a bed set in the middle of a grave site. As tour goers walked up to the spot, a man sat up in the bed and began to speak to the tour.
Lan Lipscomb created a personality for historical Auburn resident, William Mitchell, known as “Uncle Billy.” Acting out sips of whiskey and spluttering, Lipscomb spoke of Mitchell’s wife and their life together in Auburn.
He said one of his favorite parts of the role is that not much is known of Uncle Billy,” who has the only above ground crypt in Pine Hill, so he can create a personality for the man.
Lehr said there are about 1,600 plots in Pine Hill that have been identified so far, though there are more that are unknown.