By: Dana Smith
You can live in Vermilion for your entire life and still not uncover all the bits and pieces of its past. We’ve probably forgotten and lost more than we’ll ever be able to know. Of course, one of the best ways to preserve our history is to go looking for it, but some of the most exciting experiences come from the unexpected find or little known pieces of “under the radar” history – and Vermilion is full of them.
It would be easy to drive right past Brown’s Lake Road Cemetery as you head east on Liberty Avenue, but for those who catch a glimpse of the metal archway that marks the entrance to this long-forgotten cemetery, it’s well worth pulling off to explore. The patch of land doesn’t look like much at first, just a few rocks nuzzled in the trees; take a step closer, however, and you’ll notice that the rocks are actually headstones and grave markers, some of which date to the early 1800s. According to the Brownhelm Historical Association, there are as many as 123 bodies buried in the little cemetery, including a Revolutionary War veteran. Although many of the names have been worn away, some are still discernible and there are even some in German. It’s an extraordinarily humbling experience to wander the cemetery and observe the final resting place of people who led lives as complex as our own.
Another bit of hidden history is the legend surrounding the Rumsey House and the “bear cage” that resides on the property. The story goes that the owner of the house was a bootlegger who used bears to protect his operation, sometimes even letting them run wild in the woods to keep away the agents. An old cage still resides on the property of the Rumsey House and can be viewed from the lake, and there are accounts of several bears being held there. Some even cite “Big Al” Rumsey as leashing them and taking them into town! Maybe there isn’t any evidence suggesting that bears actually protected a bootleg tunnel (minus the cage, which is purely circumstantial) but the only way for you to make that decision is to get on a kayak at Sherod Park, paddle west, and go check it out yourself – at the very least, get a glimpse of the cage and let your imagination decide.
Finally, perhaps no better place exists to unearth Vermilion’s past than the Vermilion History and Print Museum. We enjoy local historian Rich Tarrant’s columns every week, but if you’re looking for more Vermilion history, forgotten sites and stories you didn’t know about, diving into the museum is the perfect place to start. With an entire floor dedicated solely to Vermilion newspaper and print, visitors can view signs that were printed with typos, but used anyway because of how expensive they were. On the upper floor, everything from old VHS yearbooks to Crystal Beach memorabilia invites visitors to explore the buried nooks and crannies of the city.
Of course, these are just a few examples of some of the overlooked parts of our history. Take the public art sails in Sherod Park, or the ghost signage that often appears in Vermilion. Or maybe you’ve heard of places in town like the Wine Vault and Lake Shore Counseling Center that used to be banks and so have vaults within them. The amount of history in Vermilion that is just waiting to be rediscovered and enjoyed is endless – you just have to go unearth it.