Jan. 29—EMPIRE, Mich. (Tribune News Service) —  Ruel K. Boynton is not a name most people today would know.

Boynton spent much of his life farming 160 acres near Empire, had a wife named Martha and eight children. He died in 1910 of heart failure due to exertion. He was 80.

He didn’t invent anything. He wasn’t famous. He wasn’t a hero.

But Boynton served nearly two years as a Union cavalryman in the American Civil War. He is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in block 1, lot 65, grave No. 1, where, until recently, his resting place was marked by grass.

That’s something that didn’t sit well with Claude Fields, who manages the Empire Township cemetery and obtained a headstone for Boynton.

“He deserves that headstone,” said Fields, 77. “I think all veterans’ graves should be marked.”

Fields took over management of the cemetery about three years ago when its 90-year-old caretaker had a stroke. She had been doing the job for more than 40 years.

Fields’ passions for genealogy, research and history soon took hold and he asked the township for a computer software program that would keep records of every gravesite, including who is buried there, their date of birth and date of death, cause of death and more. It was all information that had to be found by pouring through documents and entering them into the program’s database.

“I see the cause of death, everything from ‘kicked by a horse’ to ‘suicide,’” Fields said.

Maple Grove has 1,321 occupied graves, including ones for 140 children under the age of 4. Many are unmarked and hold people who came from the Leelanau County Poor Farm or from the former Traverse City State Hospital, he said. Others are people whose families just couldn’t afford a headstone.

Veterans occupy 209 of the graves, Fields said. When he found that Boynton’s grave had no marker, he gathered all of the documents proving the cavalryman had served in the Civil War and with the help of Reynolds Jonkhoff Funeral Home, he contacted U.S. Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. His request took a while and he was getting ready to contact someone in Congress when he was notified the headstone was approved and would soon be delivered to the funeral home.

“That was a really, really neat experience,” said funeral service specialist Megan Fryer. The funeral home regularly helps families get markers and plaques to honor their veteran, but she has never seen one that goes back that far.

“It was lovely to see that Claude respected the cemetery and the veterans and wanted to see that they were honored, not just now but into the future,” Fryer said.

Fields had taken a workshop years before on cleaning and repairing headstones. One of the first things he did after becoming manager of Maple Grove was to begin working on the long-neglected headstones, which were black and stained.

He also found the graves of five men who worked in the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which formed in 1891, when the oceans and the Great Lakes were the nation’s shipping highways. It was a dangerous job, with severe storms and frigid waters claiming thousands of lives and ships.

The men who signed up for the Life-Saving Service — fishermen, crabbers and others who grew up near shorelines — were known as surfmen and by 1915, when the service merged with the U.S. Coast Guard, they had saved 177,000 lives, according to the Life-Saving Service Heritage Association.

After a painstaking search through copies of government files of all the men who served as surfmen in the entire country, Fields found five that were buried at Maple Grove, with another at the Kelderhouse Cemetery in Port Oneida. The six graves are now marked with special flag holders that signify they served as surfmen.

Boynton, originally from Clinton, N.Y., was 31 when he signed up to fight. When he mustered out he received a 160-acre tract of land on M-72 near Benzonia Trail via the federal Homestead Act of 1862.

The act provided that any adult citizen or intended citizen who had never borne arms against the U.S. government was entitled to a claim.

They were required to live on the land and after five years would own it free and clear.

Fields can rest a little easier knowing that Boynton has a headstone.

“We can’t have a vet in here with no headstone,” he said. “That isn’t right.”

(c)2023 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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