Delaware County’s Arlington Cemetery opened in 1895 on what had been farmland for two centuries.
So you could say this verdant 130-acre burial ground in the Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby Township has returned to its roots.
GreenHorn Gardens, an up-and-coming local farm, uses organic methods to grow cherry tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, herbs, and other boutique crops in Arlington’s long-dormant greenhouse. On pop-up market days, other Pennsylvania farmers, food purveyors, and artisans set up stands outside. Local performers make music under the towering trees, against a backdrop of neat gray rows of granite gravestones.
And market fans like Upper Darby resident Maryanne Leagans love the ambience — as well as the tolerant nature of Arlington’s 115,000 permanent residents.
“They never complain. Ever,” said Leagans, a retired computer programmer. “It’s peaceful, it’s calm, and it’s beautiful here.”
Said Karen Cooley, a local photographer whose images of a winsome piglet were big sellers at a recent market: “It’s a great place to get your work seen, and to meet people." As for the cemetery’s year-round population, "they never yell, ‘Turn down the music’ or 'Get off my lawn,’” she said.
In Upper Darby Township — a diverse Delaware County suburb that borders Philadelphia and is home to more than 80,000 people — some residents say the new activities at Arlington bolster their community’s vitality and provide it with a sense of place. The final pop-up market of the season has a harvest theme and is set for noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25.
“It brings a lot of local businesses, including Black-owned businesses, together in a central location," said Bart Everts, a Rutgers University librarian who moved into the Highland Park neighborhood from West Philly two years ago. “The market tells a positive story about Upper Darby.”
Township residents and entrepreneurs Timothy and Theresa Minor agree. The owners of a company called Urban Essence Salon & Spa, the couple sells their handcrafted soaps, scrubs, shampoos, and other body products at Arlington and other local markets, as well as online.
The cemetery location is "unique,” Theresa said, and the vendors “are like a family.”
“At first it was like, ‘a market in a cemetery?’” added Timothy. “But the market has an energy, and the people who run it are like us. They’re very passionate.”
GreenHorn farmers Sean and Stacey McNicholl grew up in Upper Darby and farmed at various locations, including their own backyard, for years before leasing the greenhouse in 2019.
“When we first [established] the farm, we just gave the food away,” Sean said. “The second season we started a pop-up market. We stood in a parking lot with our veggies.”
Said Stacey: “Sean and I discovered a passion for urban farming and a more sustainable way of life 10 years ago. GreenHorn Gardens feels like the culmination of our dream.
“But when the pandemic started we got scared, and wondered whether this dream would be taken away so quickly,” she said. "We had to close the greenhouse to customers, but we pivoted and became an online business. We decided we were going to fight.”
The McNicholls already had overcome adversity. When their largest patch of rented ground abruptly became unavailable due to a construction project last year, the couple approached Arlington Cemetery president and CEO Gary Buss. He embraced their vision.
“Before this was a cemetery it was Fernland Farm, which had been part of a larger farm called Riverview,” Buss said, adding that hosting a farm and a farmers market “are not that different for us.” And like many late 19th-century cemeteries, Arlington was once a popular destination for Victorian visitors; the cemetery had its own stop of a trolley line linking it to 69th Street and the city, he said. In 2009, a historic house on the property was named a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
The McNicholls have transformed the 13,500-square-foot greenhouse, replacing glass, painting walls, and improving systems.
“The first season we had one spigot and were dragging a 100-foot hose everywhere,” said Sean.
While pandemic restrictions kept the facility off limits to the public for months, customers who wear masks and observe social distancing are now allowed inside.
“People want to experience and enjoy it," said Stacey. “GreenHorn is keeping the respect [for the surroundings]. But we’re also about enjoying life.”
Some visitors do complain that using the cemetery greenhouse to cultivate crops is not appropriate. Buss feels differently.
“Look, my parents are buried here," he said. "They were gardeners. And they would have loved it.”