Wood County Rural Cemetery Alliance works to unearth forgotten pieces of area’s past
PARKERSBURG — May is celebrated as Remember a Rural Cemetery Month in Wood County.
The Wood County Rural Cemetery Alliance, created in 2008, recognizes the month to raise awareness of the condition of cemeteries, many created in the early 19th century, that have been long neglected.
More than 300 such cemeteries exist in Wood County alone, said Bob Enoch, president of the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society.
And occasionally a cemetery or burial plot is discovered by a chance encounter, sometimes by a hunter in the woods, according to Evan Frees, an alliance co-chairman.
“It’s not common, but it does happen,” Frees said.
Clean ups generally begin around April when the weather starts to turn more favorable, Frees said.
While most of the reliance is on the property owners to take care of the cemeteries, when the owners are unavailable or are unable, volunteers step in, Frees said.
When the descendants who used to care for the cemeteries or plots die or moved away, the graveyards become forgotten, the tombstones fall over and the foliage overtakes and masks the cemetery, Enoch said.
Care for the cemeteries is a daunting task, according to Enoch. More help and volunteers are needed because of all the cemeteries in the county, a small percentage, maybe 15 percent, receive routine care, particularly clearing and mowing, he said.
“We’re still needing people,” Enoch said.
Sometimes the best way to care for a cemetery is to leave the growth alone because exposing the soil to sunlight causes more growth and could worsen conditions, Enoch said.
“Sometimes it’s best to leave things alone,” he said.
Enoch himself personally mows and cares for several old graveyards, including the historic Dils, Holliday and Tavenner cemeteries in Parkersburg. The city of Vienna cares for the historic Cook Cemetery between Lowes and Sam’s Club, Enoch said.
This year to commemorate Rural Cemeteries Month, the alliance and the historical society are featuring three cemeteries, the Mitchell, Joseph-Wesel, Hiett, and Cedar Grove cemeteries.
The Mitchell Cemetery is located on the top of the hill behind the Belleville Post Office. Diana Hill wrote about the cemetery, her father owning the land next to the graveyard.
Her parents explored the cemetery in 1957 to record the names on the gravestones, but found only seven they could read. In September 2018, Hill’s cousin and his wife, Denny and Janet Humphrey, came from Missouri to research where a relative, the Rev. Benjamin Yancey Mitchell, was buried.
“That one simple search led to unexpected discoveries,” Hill said. “It turns out that Rev. Mitchell is buried in that same cemetery “over the hill.”
The three went exploring and found “the tombstones are in sad condition. Most are impossible to read. There is no fence now, no real way to tell where the cemetery begins and ends,” she said. “We tramped through the brush, and Janet, a professional photographer, photographed what we could find.”
The photograph Hill chose to research was the tombstone of Mitchell’s granddaughter, Mary Catherine.
Roger Nedeff wrote about the Joseph-Weser Cemetery near Lubeck, not far from Route 68 on a knoll overlooking the Eli-Wadesville Road. Wood County’s first Catholic settlers are buried there.
The Joseph family came here from Randolph County in 1815 and their home would be the center of Catholic influence in the Parkersburg area, Nedeff said. Joseph was of Irish decent and a soldier in 1776, according to the Hardesty Hand Atlas of 1882, Nedeff said.
Daniel Wigal from Westmoreland County, Pa., came to Wood County after 1799 and married the Wesels’ daughter, Matilda, settling on Lee Creek near the Joseph home. They had nine children, Nedeff said.
Their daughters, Nancy and Rebecca, married Roman and Matthew Weser, respectively, Nedeff said.
“The Weser brothers, like many of Lubeck’s early settlers, came from Germany and were expert carpenters,” he said.
They helped build the first Catholic church, the Immaculate Conception, at Lee Creek across from the Joseph/Weser cemetery on a parcel of ground donated by the Joseph and Wigal families.
“The Joseph/Weser cemetery stands today, well-maintained by the current property owners, as a tribute and memorial to these early Catholic pioneers,” Nedeff said.
A large flat stone at the Cedar Grove Cemetery is called the “courting stone,” according to an article written in March 1946 for The Parkersburg News and The Parkersburg Sentinel by Cordella Moellendick, a long-time columnist.
“Young couples for several decades have sat on this stone in the moonlight to whisper words of love, with only the silent dead surrounding them as witnesses,” Moellendick wrote.
The stone is above the grave of a woman who committed suicide many when she was preparing the evening meal for her husband, Moellendick said.
The woman, baking bread, walked away to the river and threw herself into the water, Moellendick said. Her husband left the country, but didn’t want his wife’s grave to be overgrown with weeds and obscured from sight, so he covered it with a flat stone.
“It made a nice trysting place for the young people who before the days of automobiles, had few places to go,” Moellendick said.
Thirty-three Civil War soldiers also are buried in the cemetery.
The James Hiett Sr. and the James Hiett Jr. family cemeteries are in Vienna, about 100 feet apart, 300 feet east of Grand Central Avenue at 59th Street. In the more remote of the two cemeteries is the final resting place of a long-forgotten Vienna youth, Charles H. Fulton, 19, the son of Capt. J.J. and Virginia (Hiett) Fulton.
Fulton and his cousin, Harlan P. Hiett, son of Obadiah and Elizabeth Hiett, drowned together in the Ohio River on April 16, 1869.
Jeff Smith of Vienna, who with others helped restored the two Hiett cemeteries, researched Fulton’s death. The accident was reported by The (Parkersburg) Daily Times on April 17, 1869.
“The two young men were crossing the Ohio River in a skiff loaded with coal. Near the head of Buckley Island, the boat started taking on water. The river was reported to be running high. The two young men panicked and jumped into the water. With the swift current and the weight of their clothes, they became tired and unable to make it to shore, which was about 30 to 40 yards away,” the newspaper article said. “Fulton’s father stood helplessly on shore and witnessed this horrible scene, but not able to go to their rescue as there were no other boats available.”
Fulton’s body was recovered, spotted by the pilot of the riverboat Mount Claire, but there was never any account that Hiett’s body was found.
Smith, a local historian and cemetery restorer, located a confederate headstone in the Ogdin (Ogdenville) Cemetery located between Rosemar Road and Old Rosemar Road at Hazel Street on a fall afternoon in 2013. The afternoon with the sun to his southwest would make reading inscriptions easier.
Smith found the headstone that marked a grave with the inscription for Pvt. William Harper, a Confederate soldier in the Civil War Confederate soldier.
Smith, who researches most of the headstones, discovered the Confederate headstone was on a Union soldier’s grave. An innocent mistake was made, Smith said.
At the start of the Civil War, Parkersburg was in Virginia, a Confederate state that left the Union. Harper enlisted in Company E, First Virginia Cavalry, of the Union forces. It was called Virginia until West Virginia was created on June 20, 1863, and became part of the Union. The First Virginia Cavalry became First West Virginia Cavalry.
Harper re-enlisted in 1864 and was assigned to the Fourteenth W.Va. Infantry until he was discharged with a skull injury. He died Feb. 10, 1923, and is buried next to his wife.
The person who ordered the military headstone could only remember that Harper was in the Virginia Cavalry and thus ordered a Confederate headstone. Upon discovery of the mistake, Smith ordered, received and installed a new marble Union headstone from the U.S. Veterans Affairs office.