Man crafts memorial for Mt. Pleasant Cemetery's Civil War veterans
Lathered in three coats of marine varnish, a fleet of rectangular, wooden plates gleams dimly in the shadowy corners of Domer DeWitt's basement workshop deep in his Bullskin home.
Engraved into each of the 2-by-8 inch pine items are names that bear remembrance, he said.
“Some of the names, when I'm doing these, I know people that that's their last name, and I tell people what I'm doing, and they start checking to see if that's an ancestor,” said DeWitt, 62.
“That feels good,” he said.
DeWitt is completing a project that will pay homage to the 131 Civil War veterans from 11 states buried at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
Craftsman inspired by memorial event
DeWitt said his drive to create what ultimately will be a 74-by-54-inch memorial was ignited upon learning of an event held Nov. 8 at the local burial ground to honor those interred there who served in the conflict, which has long been judged by many historians as the bloodiest and most pivotal in American history.
“I told my wife, Joann, that I just have to get ahold of somebody,” he said.
The ceremony was the latest installment of a series coordinated annually by the Westmoreland County Historical Society.
In early 2014, Lisa Hays, executive director of the county society, approached Rick Meason, executive director of the Mt. Pleasant Area Historical Society, about holding the ceremony at the cemetery.
A priority was placed on staging the ceremony there because Gen. John White Geary, who helped establish the 28th Pennsylvania Regiment during the Civil War, was born in Mt. Pleasant, Hays said previously. In addition, veterans of the war initially established the local cemetery to offer a final resting place for those local residents who served, she added.
Eventually, the county and local historical societies worked together to organize the event.
DeWitt said he contacted Hays about his idea for the memorial, who put him in touch with Meason.
“I told him who I was, I told him about the stuff I'd already done and what I wanted to do,” he said.
Artist hones craft for decades
For more than four decades, DeWitt has created a kaleidoscopic collection of handmade wooden collectibles, from furniture to sports memorabilia to religious mementos to plaques commemorating birthdays and anniversaries, he said.
“I've always loved working with wood since my high school days,” said DeWitt, who attended Laurel Highlands School District in the 1960s.
During the last three years there, DeWitt whiled away many hours in the high school's wood shop, he said.
Eight months prior to graduating, the focus of DeWitt's work grew sharper after meeting his future wife, then, Joann Kaider, a native of New Salem who was a waitress at a Howard Johnson's restaurant near McGann's Gas Station, where DeWitt worked after school.
“She'd bring her car up to get serviced. I started making furniture, knowing that I was going to get married after I graduated,” he said.
Throughout his courtship, DeWitt crafted a hope chest for his love interest, along with nightstands and end tables for the home he planned to make with her.
The couple married six days after his commencement ceremony in 1970.
“He was a good catch,” Joann DeWitt said.
After that, DeWitt worked as a carpenter for five years for his brother, Roy DeWitt, proprietor of DeWitt Construction, before starting a 30-year career at the Connellsville Municipal Authority, he said.
Upon retiring in 2005, DeWitt soon returned to work at Stone & Co. in Connellsville, were he slowly began collecting castoff tools to build his home workshop, he said.
Fortuitous find is a prized possession
While wandering through the Whispering Pines furniture store in Springs, Md., in the summer of 2012, DeWitt first spotted the machine of his woodworking dreams — a CNC Shark-brand computerized router.
“I told my wife I wanted to get one of those machines.”
A few weeks later, DeWitt purchased that model at Rockler Woodworking and Hardware in Pittsburgh.
“I had the money in my pocket, and I paid in full. A week later it was delivered, and I put it together, after that I got the computer, and then I got the (drill) bits,” he said.
DeWitt's grandson, 21-year-old Cody DeWitt of Bullskin, helped him install the device's computer program.
“After that, I was off and running,” he said. “Anything that I can see that I can incorporate into that program, I go with it.”
Memorial quietly takes shape
On average, it has taken DeWitt roughly six minutes to complete each nameplate to be displayed on the Civil War veterans memorial once the information is logged on his computer, and he's still working away, he said.
“I've completed about 70 of the 130 so far,” he said recently.
Eventually, the plates will rest beneath a 72-inch-by-7 1⁄2-inch headpiece complete with hand-painted flags of the Union and the Confederacy.
“I'm going to make a frame from two-by-fours to encase the entire thing,” DeWitt said.
Local historians laud donation
Meason expressed enthusiasm for DeWitt's memorial-in-the-making, he said.
“I was just blown away by him offering to do this memorial, and it really made me feel as though the efforts of the Mt. Pleasant Area Historical Society and the Westmoreland County Historical Society to put that program together really paid off,” Meason said. “We not only did something positive for the short-term, but this memorial will do something positive for the long-term.”
The monument will likely be installed near the cemetery's main entrance along Braddock Road Avenue, said Tom Milliron, president of the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery Association.
“It will go near the bulletin board about cemetery rules but up on the hill so it can be seen,” said Milliron, adding that no timetable has been set for it's installation.
“We're in no hurry with it being winter and all.”
Mt. Pleasant Township resident Malinda Henkel, whose great-great grandfather Isaac Newton Walton Metz served as a volunteer private in the Union Army's 3rd Regiment, Maryland Infantry, Potomac Home Brigade during the war, expressed pride and excitement regarding DeWitt's planned donation.
“That's wonderful, after all these years, these veterans are going to be recognized in our community,” Henkel said. “Many members of my family would be so proud if they were alive today.”
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.