History of Oak Grove
The earliest settlers in La Crosse buried their dead in a former Indian burial ground located near the intersection of 3rd and Badger Streets. The first person buried on that site was a child of pioneer city founder Nathan Myrick.
In 1851, local church deacon S.T. Smith, purchased 15 acres for a formal public cemetery. The first burial took place in 1852. In 1857, this property became known as the Wautonga Cemetery and was operated as a private venture by Smith.
By the early 1860’s, the condition of the cemetery had deteriorated. No landscaping was attempted and there were reports of domestic animals roaming the grounds. A local newspaper called the cemetery a disgrace.
By 1869, Smith sold Wautonga Cemetery to G.S. Strasberger who added 32 acres to the original 15-acre site. Finally, in 1872 a non-profit citizens group acquired the 47-acre cemetery and incorporated as the “Oak Grove Cemetery Association of La Crosse” with resolve to restore and improve the cemetery grounds. And that’s just what they did.
Henry I. Bliss, secretary of the new association and a civil engineer, surveyed and laid out plans to create a park-like setting. Following a national trend, landscape architect Prosper Stevens was commissioned to create an attractive setting that would both comfort and inspire visitors to Oak Grove.
Over the next ten years the cemetery was enhanced with flower beds, a conservatory, circular walks, an elaborate fountain and a stone grotto. By 1881, the cemetery was described as offering “vistas of rare beauty”.
By the early 1880s, attorney and civic leader Joseph W. Losey was president of the cemetery board and actively involved in the beautification efforts. In the early 1870s, Losey collaborated with Bliss in the design of “Cemetery Park” – a broad, tree-lined, one block long boulevard that led to the entrance of the cemetery. (This block long boulevard is no longer in existence. The boulevard was vacated several years ago and turned into a “green space”.)
As the cemetery grounds improved through the 1870s and 1880s, La Crosse emerged as a major transportation, mercantile and industrial center. La Crosse was the self-touted “Gateway City” and was home to numerous wealthy and influential families. Many of those late 19th and early 20th century financial and civic leaders are buried here.