By Ken Lutes
Trees play an important role in the history and architecture of Olinger Crown Hill Cemetery, at 7777 W. 29th Ave. in Wheat Ridge. Even before the land was a cemetery it was home to an orchard, at least in part, according to Mike Skolaut, Crown Hill’s general manager.
Crown Hill has one of the larger and more dense populations of trees in the Denver metro area. Many of the trees are more than 100 years old.
“Due to a strong wind two or three years ago, we lost seven blue spruces in one day, one of which was quite old and 120 feet tall,” Skolaut said. That was a painful loss for the cemetery; even so, more than 1,700 trees representing 70 species remain to cover the 247-acre site. Twenty-one of the species are Colorado State Champions.
Because of the variety and number of tree species, the cemetery was designated an arboretum by the City of Wheat Ridge in 2007.
“My understanding is that at the time we had an arborist on staff who helped to get that designation,” said Skolaut.
Crown Hill achieved arboretum status by identifying and documenting its tree collection, under the guidance of the Denver Botanic Gardens, Front Range Community College, and the Colorado State Forester.
Unlike many cemeteries and parks, the trees at Olinger Crown Hill were not planted in straight rows; they are grouped in clusters of 12-15. The most notable trees are the Colorado blue spruce, Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, Norway maple, silver maple, ponderosa pine, Rocky Mountain juniper, plains cottonwood, English elms and Schwedler maples. Most of these trees are located in the oldest section of the cemetery, a five-block area that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
As general manager, Skolaut is tasked with overseeing his grounds manager, who is responsible for the healthy maintenance of the lawn and all of the various plants and trees. Mature trees can provide a grand sense of reverence, but, Skolaut says, “It takes work to improve their look and their health, to make sure we don’t lose them at a rapid rate.
“When I was a general manager of two cemeteries in Oklahoma City, we had an ice storm. By the next morning, each of the cemeteries had lost more than a hundred trees, most of which were Bradford pears.”
Skolaut is partial to wanting to keep Crown Hill’s trees healthy and able to withstand our region’s severest storms. He hopes people 50 years from now will experience the same variety of quality trees as people do today. To that end, lost trees are replaced in a responsible manner.
Hill Cemetery was founded in 1907 by George W. Olinger and is renowned for its historic mausoleum, which is a Denver landmark. The first interment occurred on May 12, 1908, when Augusta Garson was moved from Fairmount Cemetery, according to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1907, the property ran from Wadsworth to Kipling, between 32nd and 26th avenues. About half of that land area is now Jefferson County open space. In a Neighborhood Gazette story published in September 2017, freelance writer Jim Cherney stated, “…in 1978, the County joined the cities of Wheat Ridge and Lakewood to create Crown Hill Open Space Park.”
Skolaut believes that over the past 20 years the stigma around cemeteries has started to change.
“A cemetery is not a sad place. We have people come here to have birthday parties with their loved ones. Some have brought mariachi bands. We have dove and balloon releases. More people are celebrating the lives of their loved ones. The cemetery is a place of reverence, but you can honor people in a lot of different ways. We try to provide a facility that honors all of those traditions; it’s more of a place to go where we can remember and celebrate life as opposed to a place where we’re expected to be somber.”
The importance of trees to the property is part of Crown Hill’s legacy. Skolaut’s favorite tree is a maple that is visible from the administration building’s front entrance.
“In the fall, when we have the right set of weather circumstances, that tree is spectacular. I remember my first year here, stepping out the front door and saying, ‘Oh, my gosh!’”
Everyone is welcome to visit the grounds and enjoy the trees, the history and the architecture. Group tours may be arranged by calling 303-233-4611. Stop by the office for maps of self-guided tours of the trees and a walk to 14 points of historic interest.
To learn more, visit the National Park Service: www.cr.nps.gov/nr; coloradotrees.org, americanforests.org, and crownhillarboretum.com.
Note: Many of this writer’s ancestors have been laid to rest at Olinger Crown Hill Cemetery, beneath a century-old silver maple that in the summertime provides a shady spot for a family picnic. Busy honey bees have maintained a hive in a hollow of the tree for decades.
The St. Patrick’s Day blizzard of 2003, which brought more than 30 inches of wet, heavy snow, severely damaged that stately maple that presides over my mother’s grave. Several large branches were lost, but the tree has survived and continues to serve as a symbol of life – and a home to the bees.
Contact Ken Lutes at ken.ngazette.com.