A family fall festival held Sunday in the Town of Tonawanda featured hay rides, a bounce house and pumpkins for sale.
Nothing unusual there.
What was unusual was where it was held.
In a cemetery.
The second annual Family Fall Fest at Elmlawn Memorial Park was part of an effort to change public perception of the cemetery from one of death and mourning, to one of community and activity. "Cemetery" isn't even their preferred word, said Michael Austin, Elmlawn's president.
"It's a park," he said. "It's beautiful trees. It's wildlife. It's this beautiful, big green space in the middle of a relatively metropolitan area where people are more than invited to come in and enjoy."
Among the estimated 1,200 people who accepted that invitation during the fest's five hours were David Brand, of Grand Island, and his four-year-old son, Dimitri.
"We're just trying to suck out every last nice day of the year in Buffalo," Brand said shortly after a hayride through the cemetery's 145 acres. "Other than coming for a funeral this is the first time I've been to a cemetery other than that. It was very interesting while we were driving in wondering what it'd be like."
On the hayrides, Bill Loeb's tractor and wagon lined with hay bales to sit on wound past the "Little Chapel of the Elms," a granite chapel on a hill built in 1901, the same year the nondenominational cemetery was founded by a group of farmers from Pennsylvania.
At that time, the area was still undeveloped and rural. Coffins and mourners were brought from the City of Buffalo along a dirt road – now known as Delaware Avenue – on a specially-made trolley car that was all-black with black curtains. The car had a special attachment in front to hold the coffins.
Fred Eberhardt, a founder of Kenmore, had objected to the cemetery because he reasoned Buffalo and the City of Tonawanda would eventually merge into one big city and would have a large cemetery in the middle of it, said Town Historian Edward Adamczyk.
Elmlawn doesn't have the celebrities that a cemetery like Forest Lawn in Buffalo has. But Lewis S. Payne, a scout for the Union Army in the Civil War, is buried there, said Austin. "He actually mapped out Charleston Harbor before the Union army invaded Charleston," he said.
Payne Avenue in North Tonawanda is named for him.
About 80 acres was used in World War II as a “Victory Garden” tilled by the local Kiwanis, said Adamczyk. Later on the hayride, Loeb pointed out an oversized granite replica of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Along with appreciating Elmlawn's 115-year history, officials today want to encourage other uses such as jogging, dog walking and teaching kids to ride bikes, said Laura Galligan, a fest organizer.
"We're trying to get people out here and use it for the park that it is," she said. "It's really gorgeous."
The fest had that effect on Kayleigh Chudoba, 16, of Blasdell, who attended with her mother, Laura, and brother Bradyn, 8.
"When I first came in I was like, 'This is kind of cool, but kind of creepy at the same time,' " Kayleigh said. "It's cool because it's Halloween time. So it goes with the theme."
Brighton Volunteer Fire Company brought a fire truck. And there were food trucks, craft vendors and balloons and airbrush tattoos from Paul Chudy, aka Mr. Paul the Awesome Artist. A giant leaf pile was a hit last year, but the leaves didn't fall in time for one this year.
Organizers estimated attendance more than doubled from last year, and even heard from people from as far as Missouri who said they planned on attending. Many attendees likely also had loved ones buried at Elmlawn, Austin said.
While fall festivals are popular in outlying rural areas, Elmlawn's was envisioned as one in the heart of suburban Ken-Ton.
"It just hatched out of a few conversations," Austin said. "There's nothing like this in the town. Some of these things you'd have to go to Clarence, or Akron, or Niagara County."
Still, organizers understand they're in a place of reverence and serenity and try to strike a balance.
"We don't do it in an area where there's burials," said Austin. "We respect people's property. We're very careful about that."