Pioneer Cemetery crumbling away due to lack of funds

John and Jean Jacobs are members of the Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Group for the Pioneer Cemetery on Stow Road in Kent. Jean Jacobs is a decendent of Joshua Woodard and her family have been Kent residents since the 1800s.

Emily Mills

Weatherworn gravestones cover the secluded one-acre cemetery, some of their inscriptions lost to the elements long ago. Many of the markers are broken in half, resting against the stones still in the ground or missing completely. Near the fence, a pile of crumbled gravestones, most of them belonging to children, are jumbled together.

This is Pioneer Cemetery, Kent’s oldest cemetery and the final resting ground for at least 227 people, including more than 50 infants and children.

Despite the efforts of a small group of volunteers, the cemetery’s decrepit condition is due to a lack of funds from the city of Kent and Franklin Township.

Decades-long deterioration has taken a toll on the graveyard, said John Sapp, a member of Kent’s Standing Rock Cemetery Board of Trustees.

“These things just kind of devolve, and no one really knows why,” he said.

Because Pioneer Cemetery has been closed since 1914, it doesn’t generate revenue through the sale of burial plots, so neither the city of Kent nor Franklin Township spends money taking care of the cemetery, which sits on the two towns’ border.

Many members of the Haymaker family, who founded Kent in 1806, rest here. The matriarch, Eva, was Pioneer’s first burial in 1810.

But the graves of Haymakers, along with other local figures like the Rockwells and Depeysters, are fading into history as their markers crack and weather away.

In recent years, the city of Kent has focused on revitalizing downtown: constructing Acorn Alley and a new courthouse and converting a historic home into the Wick Poetry Center.

However, most residents overlook the cemetery because its old age and inconspicuous location off Stow Street near Haymaker Parkway.

A helping hand

Today, Standing Rock Cemetery, founded in October 1857, serves as Kent’s active cemetery, with over 15,899 people buried there.

Unlike Pioneer, Standing Rock receives funding through property taxes from both the city of Kent and Franklin Township, said Jean Chrest, clerk-treasurer for Standing Rock Cemetery.

The cemetery receives an average of at least $140,000 a year from the city of Kent and an average of about $57,000 a year from Franklin Township.

“We wouldn’t derive any funding (at Pioneer) like we would at Standing Rock, (where) we can charge for burial plots,” Sapp said.

Chrest said Standing Rock, located on North Mantua Street across from Theodore Roosevelt High School, assists with annual lawn maintenance for Pioneer.

“When Pioneer needs something, they come to us,” Chrest said. “Generally, whatever they need, we get for them. We just don’t have an operating budget for them because it’s no longer operating.”

The community steps up

The cemetery requires a lot of maintenance past mowing and mulch, so a group of 25 volunteers, called the Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Group, created in 2006, donates time and money to improve the aesthetics of the cemetery.

The mostly elderly group of volunteers agree that when they first started, the cemetery was in bad shape.

“You could hardly see the stones because it looked like a field of weeds,” said Jan Rader, a 15-year volunteer from Kent.

The group has a nine-member board made up of five active volunteers including the acting coordinator, one member of the Franklin Township Cemetery Board of Trustees, one person representing the City of Kent (Ward 2), one person representing the Kent Historical Society and one at-large seat from the community.

The mission statement reads: “The mission of the Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Group is to honor our earliest settlers by preserving their final resting place, and to provide for its ongoing care through community involvement and awareness.”

John Jacobs, who volunteers at the cemetery with his wife, Jean, was around the cemetery when he was younger and saw the dismal state it was in.

“It was pretty decrepit in those days,” he said. “I was pretty sure there were some ghosts there.”

The group was granted 501(c)(3) tax exemption status in October 2008, but the volunteers have been active there for about 15 years, said Ted Welser, a former Kent attorney and creator of the group.

An expensive fix

One of Pioneer’s most obvious issues is its decrepit grave markers.

A powerful storm in June 2000 damaged many of the stones, which have not been repaired. Instead, broken pieces rest against the halves that remain standing.

Welser said these markers are made of sandstone, which does not withstand the elements.

The Western Reserve Historical Society replaced the original headstones in 1931, and in the 80 years since, the weather has taken its toll.

Welser said vandalism has also been an issue.

Cost prohibits the group from replacing the markers with more permanent versions made of marble and granite, Welser said. A single adult monument costs $895, while a two-adult monument costs $1,283.

He said he would like to purchase cheaper plastic markers that lay in the ground so they can be mowed over without damage.

He is also experimenting with radar to determine exactly how many bodies are buried and where they are buried in the cemetery, which is difficult to know due to the passage of time and insufficient records.

“We don’t know where everybody is buried, actually,” he said. “It was neglected for a long time because they stopped burying people there 100 years ago. It was overgrown.”

Caring for the past

Each volunteer is responsible for a specific number of graves as a part of the group’s Adopt-A-Pioneer program, created in 2006 by Pat Morton, a former Record-Courier reporter who died of cancer in July 2009.

A guardian angel

Pat Morton, a former Record-Courier reporter who died of cancer in July 2009, was also instrumental in the formation of the group.

Morton was especially focused on taking care of the graves of the more than 50 infants and children in the cemetery.
A bench in the cemetery was dedicated to Morton in 2011.

Her husband, Jeff Morton, still volunteers in the cemetery.

“She really enjoyed doing it,” he said. “She gathered a lot of support. Kent’s sort of lucky to have a cemetery that’s so old that’s maintained so well.”

“We would say, ‘God, she’s a pain in the you-know-what,’” John Sapp said jokingly. “She wouldn’t let us out of her grasp. Whatever she wanted, she got. She really pushed getting everything that got done in this cemetery.”

Many volunteers have relatives in the cemetery, while others feel they should take care of the graves of people whose family has moved away or are too old to take care of them.

First-year volunteer James Beal is the mayor of Sugar Bush Knolls, a small village of 177 people near Streetsboro.

He said he decided to volunteer after the president of his village’s council told him about the group.

“My conscience got the better of me,” he said. “Most of these graves are so old; there’s just not family left in the area (to take care of them).”

Beal also has relatives in the cemetery. His great-great-grandparents are buried there.

Jack Amrhein, an eight-year volunteer from Kent and city councilman, began volunteering because the cemetery is located in ward two, which is the ward he is in charge of.

“It’s in my ward, but it’s the civically responsible thing to do,” he said. “A lot of these gravesites, there’s no one to take care of them.”

Carol Fridy, a seven-year volunteer from Kent, said she also feels a responsibility to take care of the graves.

She saw an ad in the paper asking for volunteers and signed up, and she is now in charge of volunteer recruitment.

“I love coming down here,” she said. “If you’re having a bad day, there’s nothing better than coming down here and pulling a few weeds.”

Welser said it’s important for the volunteers to take care of the cemetery because Kent’s past needs to be preserved for the future.

“It’s our history, and we don’t want to lose it,” he said. “It means a lot to me to be able to walk around and see names of people who were right here 200 years ago. It’s ancient history, and it’s really neat.”

Those interested in volunteering with the Pioneer Cemetery Preservation Group should call (330) 678-5671.

Contact Emily Mills at [email protected].