Kent cemeteries hold city’s history


Pioneer Cemetery on Stow Road is one of the oldest cemeteries in Kent.

Katherine Schaeffer

Since its founding in 1805, generations of colorful characters have called the City of Kent home. While some left tangible legacies, marking city streets and buildings with their names, others left behind less savory tales of betrayal and murder. 

Kent’s two largest cemeteries, Standing Rock and Pioneer, serve as final resting places for thousands of the city’s former inhabitants, some of whom, residents say, still roam Kent’s streets.

Standing Rock Cemetery 

The oldest graves in Kent’s largest cemetery, Standing Rock, date back to the 1850s, said Jean Chrest, Standing Rock’s clerk treasurer. The 45-acre cemetery is still active, and more than 15,899 people are buried there.

Walking Standing Rock’s paths becomes an informal Kent history lesson, as generations of Kent’s most influential and most infamous citizens line the walkways. Standing Rock has kept a file of newspaper clippings documenting some of the entombed’s most lurid exploits.

One of the cemetery’s residents, Akron attorney Mark H. Shank, was executed for murder in 1935. While picnicking with a former client and his family, Shank snuck rat poison into the family’s meal. The “poison picnic” killed all but the 4-year-old son. 

In 1939, Wally Basel died in the hospital after neighbors found him wounded and hanging out the window of his Streetsboro home. The bodies of two other men lay slain just feet away. But the details still remain unclear; Basel died before police could question him. 

A host of Civil War veterans rests at Standing Rock, including the first African American buried there. Former slave Jonathan Ramsey bought his freedom and moved to Kent in 1857. Ramsey fought in the Pennsylvania Colored Regiment during the Civil War. 

St. Patrick’s Cemetery, the Catholic portion of Standing Rock, is the site of a tombstone with a carving of two boys on either side, marking the grave of the Mittiga brothers, who drowned in the Cuyahoga River in 1924. 

This is one of the cemetery’s saddest stories, Chrest said. 

Antonio and Giuseppe, ages 12 and 10, decided to build a raft to take on the river’s rapid current. But the raft capsized and the boys drowned in the river.

Chrest said she’s never seen any ghosts in the cemetery, but some visitors tell stories of the brothers’ spirits playing near the water.

The Kent Section 

Along with the ghastly stories of betrayal and murder, visitors pass the graves of Kent’s historical figures, including members of the city’s eponymous Kent family, who rest in what Chrest calls the “Kent Section.” 

William Stewart Kent, buried in 1923, donated 52 acres of land comprising the bulk of Kent State’s main campus, according to information compiled by the Kent Historical Society. 

Many of Kent’s ghost stories stem from sightings of William Kent’s first wife, Kittie North Kent, years after her death in 1886, said Sandy Halem, former president of the historical society.

“The most ghost stories of any one person are about Kittie Kent,” she said. “These are the great stories—when nobody knows the story, but they swear up and down they saw a woman in a white dress.”

William and Kittie lived on West Main Street, in the mansion which is now Kent’s Masonic Temple. Although Kittie died tragically when a kerosene stove exploded in the home, some visitors claim to see a young woman in an old-fashioned white gown roaming the home’s halls.

Breakneck Cemetery

In the 1970s, the City of Kent constructed a Kmart on East Main Street. 

The building, which houses Gabriel Brothers today, sits on land previously occupied by 107 bodies buried in Breakneck Cemetery, Chrest said. 

Most of Breakneck’s burials occurred before the Civil War, but more than a hundred years later, the bodies were exhumed and re-interred at Standing Rock.

Pioneer Cemetery  

Pioneer Cemetery, located on Stow Street, was established in 1810. The small plot of land holds many of Kent’s early settlers, including the Haymaker, Rockwell, Lake and Allen families. Many of the headstones are broken with the original inscriptions worn away. 

Some tombstones are missing completely, making it impossible to tell just how many people rest there or where their bodies are buried, said Ted Welser, founder of the Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Group, a small group of volunteers that cares for the graveyard. 

The group is sure that at least 227 people, including more than 50 infants and children are buried there, Welser said. 

A haunted history 

Inspired by the variety of ghost stories floating around the city, the Kent Historical Society compiled a collection of stories about ghosts, apparitions and other sightings around, Halem said.

“We were very surprised at the number of ghost stories that were being told,” Halem said. “We always say these stories are all true from the people who gave them. People, I think, aren’t making this up so much as they are believing them.”

In the book “Haunting Tales from the Tree City,” several of the stories recount Kent residents’ ghoulish experiences near Pioneer Cemetery. 

Halem and a friend from school held a séance with a Ouija board at her friend’s home, which sat next to the cemetery. After the experience, she never touched a Ouija board again.

“It sounded like great fun, but before I could put my fingers on the planchette or ask a question, we heard strange sounds as if someone was trying to talk,” she writes. “We both looked at each other with a very frightened look as we had no idea what was going on. What was even more frightening was that the planchette started to move without our fingers being on it.”

The historical society treats ghost stories as part of the community’s oral history, Halem said.

“If people give us a story, we collect the story. In this case, there is no way to prove fact or fiction,” she said. “We weren’t there. So, that’s why we do it—because it does reflect, in many cases, the actual history of our community. This person died, this person was murdered—so it is a breadcrumb trail of history.”

Contact Katherine Schaefer at [email protected].

Rachel Sluss and Emily Mills contributed to reporting.

Contact Rachel at [email protected].

Contact Emily at [email protected].