Volunteers wipe away neglect from Washington County cemetery

Matthew Santoni
| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 7:44 p.m.

Honoring veterans is commonplace, so Mercedes McCarthy wondered why no one seemed to remember the veterans buried in a little cemetery near the West Virginia border.

Graves in the Paris Cemetery are the final resting places for soldiers who fought in U.S. conflicts from the American Revolution to Desert Storm, but like many old burial grounds in Western Pennsylvania, the cemetery in the Washington County town has been neglected.

“It just pulled at my heart that veterans' graves are in here, and their burial site was being overrun with weeds,” said McCarthy, a recent transplant to Paris, part of Hanover Township.

Caretaker Les Grossmann began mowing the cemetery in 2004 and quit at one point once payments stopped. Now he, McCarthy and other volunteers are working to secure the site's long-term viability by arranging cleanups and seeking money for upkeep.

The region is dotted with old cemeteries that have gone to seed as the churches that started them closed, families died off or moved away, new burials dwindled and money for upkeep ran out, said Chuck Edgar, research librarian at the Washington County Historical Society.

“Practically wherever you go, there are old cemeteries. Some have funds to keep going, some don't,” Edgar said.

If those cemeteries are forgotten and overgrown, fewer people can use them to find connections to their past, he said. And given the region's historic status as a gateway to western expansion and an industrial center, many people from other parts of the country have relatives buried in Western Pennsylvania.

“Half the world came this way on its way west,” Edgar said, “so a lot of people come back here all the time” to research their genealogy.

Thomas J. Hannon, a retired geography professor at Slippery Rock University, said cemeteries record culture as well as genealogy.

Materials used in headstones show the transportation and trade available at the time, he said, and symbols and epitaphs show attitudes toward death. Grave markers took on a gloomy tone in the early days of settlement, but became lighter with more hopeful messages in the 1800s.

The Turner Cemetery off Beechwood Boulevard is one of the oldest burial grounds in Allegheny County, said Helen Wilson, vice president of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society, and though members of the neighboring Mary S. Brown Memorial-Ames United Methodist Church mow it, there's no money to restore headstones worn away by the centuries.

“Most of the early history of Pittsburgh was wiped away by industry and development. You can count on one hand the number of structures and places like this from the 1700s that still exist,” Wilson said.

Old St. Luke's Church in Scott is one such relic, where the Rev. Richard Davies operates the stone church dating to the 1850s and a graveyard dating to the mid-1700s.

He gets by, he said, with help from paid landscapers and volunteer researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, plus donations and fees from renting the church for weddings or burying ashes for longtime supporters.

“We have no congregation. We just have friends,” Davies said.

Davies suggested that friends of the Paris Cemetery work with schools and Scout groups to build interest in the site.

“The magnet for people's interest here is the church and our history,” Davies said of St. Luke's. If the Paris volunteers “don't have a magnet except for some tombstones, it will be hard for them to draw interest.”

Volunteers in Paris have photographed graves and are compiling histories of their notable inhabitants.

Others are digging into boxes of records and deeds in hopes of finding a boundary survey, tax and mineral rights records.

Early on, the last living member of the Paris Cemetery Association paid Grossman for his caretaker's chores, he said, and a volunteer helped him with new burials using the cemetery's 1961 backhoe.

Once the association member died and the volunteer moved away, Grossmann cared for the cemetery by himself. With just two or three new burials a year, money to maintain the cemetery and fuel equipment ran out.

“At 7 12 acres, it's a lot for just one guy,” Grossmann said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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