Monday, January 6, 2003

Cemetery stories vanishing

Tombstones, thousands of which are crumbling and overgrown, tell our history

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

POWELL - Amid unwieldy grass and fallen leaves, three small, moss-covered stone tablets poke crookedly from a rolling pasture where Newton Case's three children were buried in the 1840s.

  As Ohio prepares to celebrate its 200th year of statehood, pieces of its heritage have been lost or are in danger of vanishing. The Ohio Associated Press has profiled some of the most notable:
• Saturday: History lost to time, neglect.
• Today: Hidden cemeteries are a link to Ohio's settlers. Also, American Indian mounds have been lost with growth.
• Tuesday: Lands are being restored after generations of use, abuse.
• Wednesday: Ohio's black history fading from landscape.
• Thursday: A quiz that takes a fun look at Ohio history
Little is known about Case, a farmer who was the original settler of part of southern Delaware County, just north of Columbus. However, the tiny cemetery gives clues to three tragedies in his life - sons Ervin and Martin and an unnamed infant all died before age 2.

"Who were you? What did you do? Why were you here? Those are all questions these little places can help us answer about those who came before us," writer Judy Brozek said as she bent down to examine the intricate carvings on the stones. Ms. Brozek has researched the 17 cemeteries near her home in Powell, just north of Columbus.

It is unknown how many such small cemeteries have been destroyed since the state was founded 200 years ago or how many still exist but have not been discovered. Preservationists working to locate, protect and restore them say the cost is lost history.

"They tell our individual stories of ancestry but they also tell the one story we all have in common - the history of the state," said Melanie Pratt, a state historic preservation officer.

In September, a legislative committee began examining whether Ohio should create a program to preserve cemeteries and unmarked human burial grounds. Such a program is unlikely anytime soon because the state has little money for such projects.

The Cincinnati Historical Society has lists of names on tombstones in early cemeteries in southwest Ohio, but many of the cemeteries themselves are gone. Among the oldest cemeteries that still exists in this area is Pioneer Cemetery on Wilmer Avenue, across from Lunken Airport.

It contains the grave of a soldier from the American Revolution.

Just 100 yards south of the cemetery is the site of another pioneer cemetery nearly obliterated by deterioration and vegetation.

Because there is no statewide preservation effort, local community groups and individuals have taken the lead in preserving cemeteries, especially those where veterans and notable Ohioans are buried.

16,000 sites in Ohio

The Ohio Genealogical Society, which has spent the past 30 years locating cemeteries, says there are at least 16,000 in Ohio.

The state did not keep track of the graveyards until a law passed in the mid 1990s required all active cemeteries - those with burials in the past 25 years - to register annually beginning in 1995.

About 3,300 cemeteries are registered, meaning that an estimated 12,700 are inactive.

Thousands of those are pioneer and soldier graveyards from the 1800s with no more than a dozen burial plots.

Families who had buried their own on their property eventually left such cemeteries behind.

Under Ohio law, ownership fell to local governments, which often were not aware such cemeteries existed or that they had become responsible for upkeep, such as mowing lawns and fixing broken headstones.

"So many have been lost or forgotten," said Lolita Guthrie, a Bowling Green resident who is the Ohio Genealogical Society's state cemetery chairwoman. "Part of the reason is that society is so transient now. Families used to go back and take care of their plots, but that doesn't happen in a modern generation."

The plots have been discovered through the years as the state grew. While some cemeteries have disappeared as housing subdivisions, golf courses and office complexes have been built, others have been saved - and in some cases - restored by developers.

In Cuyahoga County, Carnegie Management Co. built a shopping center around a Middleburg Heights cemetery that has at least seven graves, including those of the Hickcox family - the city's first settlers - and a Civil War veteran.

Once an overgrown plot 1,500 feet from the nearest road, the cemetery now is in the middle of a parking lot and has a wrought-iron fence, glossy markers and trimmed landscaping.

"It was either move the cemetery, and I don't think anyone wanted that, or fix it up," said Rustom Khouri, the company's president. "We're good neighbors. We try to do right by the community ... even if it looks a little odd sometimes."

Preservationists say the cemeteries must be protected because a headstone may be the sole record of a person's life, especially if the person lived in the 19th century, when paper birth and death records often were unintentionally lost or destroyed.

In Cleveland, the Erie Street Cemetery dates to the 1820s and is considered the city's oldest.

It has the remains and memorials of some of the city's first families.

"It's the only physical evidence left for the people who first settled Cleveland," said Katie Karrick, who has been dubbed "The Cemetery Lady" because of her nationally distributed historic cemetery newsletter, "Tomb with a View." "Their houses are gone. Their possessions are gone. Their little hamlet is gone. All that is left is a stone with their name on it."

"If we don't keep that type of history up close in the front of our minds, we're going to lose sight of where the city has come from," said Ms. Karrick, also founder of the fledgling Ohio Cemetery Preservation Society.

In Sinking Spring in Highland County, Nick Ewing has led a massive clean up of the Governor Byrd Cemetery, where Charles Willing Byrd, the governor of the Northwest Territory in 1802, and 13 Civil War veterans are buried.

"Before, you couldn't hardly see that a cemetery was there because the brush was so high," Mr. Ewing said. "I thought 'Good grief, if he's that important shouldn't he deserve better?' It started with just me and then it kind of snowballed and now the whole town's involved."

War memorial

In southern Ohio's Vinton County, the Lambert Land Preservation Society raised nearly $20,000 for a memorial in a Morgan Township cemetery where the graves of 30 blacks and 15 Civil War veterans do not have headstones.

The marble memorial lists the names of the 30 former slaves of Charles Lambert Jr., a Virginia man whose will in 1843 freed them and granted them 265 acres of land.

Fifteen cemetery markers also were added to the soldiers' graves.

"We wanted our kids to have something to look back so they could know where they came from and that they have a great heritage," said Corliss Miller of Bidwell, whose husband, Glenn, is a descendant of one of the slaves.

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