Winfield Township trio beautifies Pape Cemetery, hopes to find regular caretaker
Pape Cemetery in Jefferson Township looked like any other last week — grass cut, weeds plucked, bushes trimmed.
But a year ago, foot-and-a-half-tall grass and weeds had taken over the site where a number of Butler County's historic figures are buried, including the Cooper family, who were among the county's earliest settlers.
“It was a shame to see it growing up into weeds; it's history,” said Janet Morris, 71, who lives on Cooper Road in Winfield Township, not far from the cemetery at the corner of Cooper and Route 356.
She and her husband, Gale, 75; their neighbor Neil Bachman, 66; and a few others banded together last year to get the cemetery into shape.
Now they're hoping to find a regular caretaker.
“It's rough for my husband to get up there and mow,” said Morris, who noted he walks with a cane. “It takes me two hours to get it mowed, and it takes the neighbor (Bachman) about two hours to do the trimming on the bank and around the stones.”
Jefferson Township officials told the Morrises that, with just two full-time public works employees, the township doesn't have the money or manpower to maintain the 1.5-acre site.
However, township Supervisor Lois Rankin's letter to Concordia Lutheran Ministries, which owns the adjacent property, elicited temporary assistance.
“We try to be a good neighbor, and we're very happy to cooperate with the township and maintain the cemetery this year,” spokesman Frank Skrip said.
About 100 people are documented to have been buried in Pape Cemetery, according to Find A Grave, a searchable website relied upon by those researching genealogy, and on which people can record and post pictures of grave markers.
Some of the headstones from the 1800s are no longer legible.
The largest marker is a 20-foot-high monument for William Andrew Smith, known as “Uncle Billy,” a Tarentum blacksmith who made tools used to drill the world's first oil well in Titusville.
Also buried there are Samuel and Rebecca Cooper, who built Cooper Cabin, an original county homestead from the early 1800s; and Nancy Jane Cooper, who was the last person to live in Cooper Cabin. Her grandson bequeathed the site to the Butler County Historical Society in 1976.
Gale Morris' sister, Una Marie Sub, was one of the last people to be buried there, in 2004.
For several years, the Historical Society had a volunteer who mowed the graveyard and nearby Cooper Cabin, but that person quit more than a year ago, director Pat Collins said.
Collins said she had a tough time finding someone to maintain the cabin grounds for this summer.
She said the nonprofit can't take over cemetery maintenance, even though the sites might be historical.
“We have in excess of 210 cemeteries with more than one headstone in them, and I know there are more that I don't know about,” Collins said.
It's unclear who owns the cemetery land. The last documented owner is the former Methodist Episcopal Church in Renfrew, according to Butler County property records.
In response to a call from the Valley New Dispatch, the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church began looking into whether it owns the property.
“We talked with the former (Renfrew Methodist Church) pastor, and she was never aware that they owned a cemetery,” spokeswoman Dawn Check said. “We're not saying we're not responsible. We're saying we have to investigate it. If it is ours, we will take responsibility for it and we will care for it, because it's our job to do it.”
Howard Pollman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, said maintenance of abandoned cemeteries typically falls to community groups because the ancestors or church that maintained the grounds are long gone.
He said preserving cemeteries is important because they are “a snapshot of the community's history.”
“These cemeteries, even though they're forgotten, they're extremely valuable because they're evidence of where people settled, even economics. (For example) if you have big, beautiful gravestones versus small, simple ones,” Pollman said.
Larry Boehm of Leechburg knows the Morrises' struggles all too well. Two years ago, he took over as vice president of the Leechburg Cemetery Co.'s board of directors. The company maintains Leechburg Cemetery, where many of the community's founders are buried.
It's been difficult to keep a base of volunteers, Boehm said, but he said he recognizes the importance of continuing his efforts.
“It's a piece of the town,” said Boehm, who mows there regularly, trims shrubs and removes downed tree branches. “The cemetery is a permanent monument to the people who built the place.”
The Morrises said they want to have peace of mind that someone is going to take care of the historic Pape Cemetery in Jefferson Township after they're gone.
“It should be kept up out of respect for the people who were buried here,” Janet Morris said.
Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.