We don’t know if Francis Collins spent Halloween at his own grave, but he was there most other days. From spring through fall, the Civil War veteran would commute by streetcar from his quarters at the National Soldiers Home (now the Veterans Administration Medical Center) to Forest Home Cemetery. That historic burial ground became his resting place long before the retired salesman died.
A confirmed bachelor with no domestic responsibilities, Collins, at age 74, bought an oversized lot on the north end of the cemetery, just east of the chapel, in 1900. He turned it into a miniature park, with two massive stone planters, a pair of iron benches, three flags and floral displays that changed with the seasons. In the center of the ensemble was a granite monument more than 10 feet high bearing Collins’ name and his dates of military service.
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The old warhorse was anything but morbid as he haunted his own grave. With his white chin whiskers, handmade pipe and blue Union uniform, Collins was a distinctive figure who attracted a regular stream of visitors, and he kept them entertained with his salesman’s stock of jokes and stories. One of his guests was a journalist who called in 1907, when the veteran was 81. As the reporter was closing his notebook, Collins issued an invitation: “Don’t fail to come out and visit me again. I may be down there, but if I am, I want you to come and sit on my benches and admire this spot just the same as if I was here.”
Francis Collins lived for another 23 years. It was not until 1930, when he was 104, that the garrulous old soldier went below, finally joining his longtime neighbors in the ultimate silence of the grave.
TAKE A CLOSER LOOK:
- The flags and benches are long gone, but Collins’ stone planters remain, today sporting only a modest growth of weeds.
- A mysterious inscription adorns the north side of the monument: Orrie Viola Collins, with no dates.
- The veteran’s original flower beds were surrounded by fences of iron chains painted red, white and blue.
IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY