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Resurrecting the Springfield, Ohio burying grounds

Ancient oak tree shelters tombstones at the Springfield Burying Ground.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Ancient oak tree shelters tombstones at the Springfield Burying Ground.

A note from a descendant of Revolutionary War Veterans left at the gravesite kickstarted efforts by the community to restore a forgotten cemetery in Downtown Springfield, Ohio. The little cemetery, tucked between buildings off of Columbia Street holds the remains, and forgotten stories, of the city's first white residents. But now, that history is being resurrected.

The cemetery has gone by many names in the past, but most people in the region might know it as the Columbia Street Cemetery, since that is the road that it currently sits on. But originally, it was simply called the Springfield Burying Grounds.

“When the first burial happens in this cemetery, probably around 1801-1802, this is literally just open land, right, you can imagine this is the frontier,” explained Kevin Rose, a Historian at the Turner Foundation. “So this doesn’t actually get designated in the city as a cemetery until almost two decades after they start burying people here. Then they’re expanding the town, the town starts coming over this and they’re like, well, we need to officially, I guess, call this a cemetery. So on the map of that second edition to the city, they write down in pencil, ‘burying ground’. “

Rose is a member of the Springfield Burying Ground Restoration Committee, which has raised over nine hundred thousand dollars to commemorate the lives of the city's early pioneers buried here, most in unmarked and forgotten graves. The cemetery is getting a face lift. Workers are building stone walls, walkways, and seven brick memorials to commemorate each of the Revolutionary War Veterans buried here.

Throughout the cemetery, centuries old tombstones which had been neglected and fallen into disrepair, are being put back together. And with each reconstructed tombstone, another part of Springfield’s early history is uncovered.

The rediscovered Tombstone of Mrs. Sarah Jewett had been buried face down for probably 150 years.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
The rediscovered Tombstone of Mrs. Sarah Jewett had been buried face down for probably 150 years.

In one section of the cemetery a beautiful tall, dark gray headstone leans against a tree. It was discovered during the renovation work buried in the ground - so the inscription on this headstone has not worn away with time and the elements. Rose points out the beautiful columbine flowers engraved on the stone. “It’s gorgeous because this fell down fairly early on and got buried, the letters are so crisp,” Rose said looking at the marker. “It has been underground for probably 150 years.”

The stone commemorates the remains of Mrs. Sophia Jewett. “And I’ve not had a chance to do research on her yet, although it’s going to be almost impossible to find her,” Rose said. “She dies in 1826. There’s no record of her. There’s no birth record of her, there's probably no marriage record for her, there’s no death record for her, she’s not going to be in the census.

For all intents and purposes she ceased to exist as a historical figure until we found her tombstone.”

Ernest Hemingway said that “Every man has two deaths, when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name. In some ways men can be immortal.”

“And people who live longest are the people who we continue to tell their stories. And this project brought this woman back to life in that way, right? Because here we are talking about her,” Rose said. “ It sounds weird to say I love these stories, but they are these women who have kinda been forgotten to time. They died young, often in childbirth, and society moves on - and especially moves on because they continue that westward journey - and their wives are back here in Springfield in the Springfield Burying Ground. So these women are left here.”

Tucked between pallets of construction material along the edge of the cemetery a tall, delicate tombstone has been reconstructed from remnants that were found lying on the ground. The name Elizabeth Foos is faintly visible on the marker. Rose likes to call her the first woman of Springfield.

Tombstone of Elizabeth Foos in the process of being reconstructed.
Renee Wilde
/
WYSO
Tombstone of Elizabeth Foos in the process of being reconstructed.

“The Foos’ were the people who came in and built the first tavern, the first meeting house. They were instrumental in almost every story of the early settlement,” explained Rose looking at the repaired stone. “And these early women on the frontier are doing a lot, they’re chopping wood, they're protecting their homes - they are badasses. And I love to try and interpret that as we walk through the cemetery and look at the tombstones. Because we’ve lost a lot of those personal stories, so we can only kind of imagine what her life was like.”

Construction will soon be wrapping up on the Springfield Burying Grounds project. The abrasive buzzing of saws and drills will be gone, leaving behind freshly renovated grounds with new walkways and monuments to the community pioneers buried here.

So this project doesn’t end when we open this cemetery back to the public, in some ways it never ends. We’re always going to be preserving and maintaining these stones, these stories,” Rose says looking out over the cemetery grounds. “In a hundred years there’s going to be someone like me talking to WYSO again about the project that they’re doing to resurrect those stories.”

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.