NEWPORT, Pa. (AP) - For almost half a century, Charlie Wentz has been the caretaker for thousands of men and women buried in Newport Cemetery. He has buried hundreds of people, men and women from all walks of life who share in one common thread - their final resting places on this quiet hillside that overlooks the Perry County town.
Each time Charlie buries someone, his wife Fran writes their name and location - section and plot number - on a 3-by-5 index card, which is then filed in a cabinet located in their home next to the grounds. Charlie and Fran know where most of the recent burials are - he can still find their first - but the cemetery here stretches back to the late 1800s.
To find those graves, Charlie (or Fran) looks up the name in their index card catalog, then cross references that location with maps of the cemetery that often were hand-drawn on the backs of window blinds. As sections were added, new maps were drawn. Some were proper surveyor maps, others were of the hand-drawn window-blind variety.
“It’s what they had,” John Amsler, president of the Newport Cemetery Association, said last week. For years the maps were stored in the Wentz’s attic. When Fran needed to locate a grave - maybe a curious genealogist trying to trace family records - she would go upstairs and find the right section, then unroll it to find the plot.
It was, to say the least, an imperfect system. Caretakers essentially acted as the cemetery’s librarians, but without a Dewey Decimal system to guide them. Numbers were not necessarily sequential, or the system shifted over the years, making the maps essential to finding the older graves. And as time rolled on, the maps began to deteriorate, fraying at the edges or cracking apart.
“You have to be very careful, as they would just fall to ashes (when handled),” Fran said.
In time, many of the maps became almost illegible. Amsler knew that when they were gone they could not be replaced. Indeed, the records of a second and even older cemetery in Newport already have been lost. Located at the edge of town, the community’s first cemetery sits at the end of Fifth Street, overlooking Little Buffalo Creek.
The graves here date to the early 1800s - some of the people were born in the late 1700s. The only record of the cemetery are notes taken by a historian and kept by the Perry County Historical Society. The cemetery association is unaware of any other documentation, a fate similar to the one they fear for their deteriorating maps. (As an aside, the cemetery association itself has a fairly fascinating history, having started as a for-profit operation in 1863. It became a non-profit after the Panic of 1907, a recession that forced many banks and businesses into bankruptcy).
“We were going to lose the records,” Amsler said. And those records represented not just the final resting places of the dead but in many ways the history of the town itself.
“We did have the card file, but we need to preserve these records, and if we didn’t do it quickly, we could have a real problem,” he said.
The weft and warp of history
Practically every town in Pennsylvania boasts an historical building or two, artifacts preserved because of their connection to an event, person, or time. But rarely do those physical places embody the full history of a community. The stories they tell can be fascinating and thought-provoking - yet they are but markers or sign posts along a longer road.
Like an iceberg, they represent a small piece of a larger story.
That larger story is literally buried - usually on the outskirts of town. It is here, amid the marble stones, that the weft of history can be found - the threads that weave between the warp of our historic buildings. Tug on a thread - pull it gently enough, and you might find a story.
In the summer of 1862, Josephus W. Smith, the son of hotelier Jacob Smith, left Newport with a number of young men from the surrounding countryside. They traveled to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, where they were formed into Company I of the 133rd infantry regiment, Union Army, commanded by Col. Franklin Speakman, of New Bloomfield.
Smith and his fellow volunteers were too late for the Union victory at Antietam, but were sent to Maryland and Virginia, where they spent the fall marching and drilling. In December they marched south through Virginia to the town of Fredericksburg under the command of Gen. Andrew Humphrey where, along with thousands of other young men, they engaged the Confederate army in battle. They were marched through the town and launched into a frontal assault of Confederate troops occupying higher ground above Fredericksburg.
After the fighting, Speakman wrote a brief account:
“Between two and three o’clock P.M., on Saturday, the 13th of December, the regiment, in common with the other regiments of the brigade, was ordered to cross the river. This was successfully done, although the shells from the enemy’s batteries were falling thick and fast, and exploding over us. I advanced my regiment as directed, through Fredericksburg, crossed the canal, or race, just outside of the city, and filing to the left, formed line of battle under cover of a small hill … Knapsacks were unslung, bayonets fixed, and orders received to charge the works on Marye’s Heights.
“We charged up and over the hill, about two hundred and fifty yards, when we came upon a line of troops, lying down. My men, not knowing that they were to pass over this line, covered themselves as well as they could in the rear of this line. The troops in front, neither advancing nor retreating, and a second charge being ordered, I passed over the prostrate troops, charged to the right of, and past the Brick House, and to within about fifty yards of the stone-wall, and to the left of the house, to the crest of the hill. These positions were held for an hour, under a most terrific fire from the enemy’s infantry and artillery, and until dusk, when I was ordered by General Humphreys to withdraw, which I did.”
Fredericksburg was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and a loss for the Union Army. It was also the end of Josephus Smith, who was wounded during the action and died of his wounds. Today he - and a number of his fellow soldiers - rest in the old cemetery in Newport.
There are other stories here as well. Brutal stories of the challenge of surviving life in the early 1800s. Stories like the Etter family, Henry and Mary, who together had eight children in the mid-1800s- Addie, Kate, J.P., A.E., Marion, Oliver, Rudolphus, and Amanda - none of whom lived past the age of four.
Then there are the mysteries such as Abraham and Rebecca Howe, both born in the 1790s - the dawn of the United States. In 1846 one of the first schools in Howe Township - just outside of Newport - was constructed on land owned by an Abraham Howe. It was built after an election three years earlier in which locals voted to restore a free school system that had been abolished by the local school board. Two years later, in the fall of 1848, Abraham and Rebecca died five days apart. A historian who later inspected the cemetery’s records wrote in the margin: Accident? Fire?
These are the fabric of a town’s true history - the people who lived their lives in and around Newport. The only record of their lives are the markers in the cemetery yard, the records of their passing, records that are - all across the state - slowly being worn away by the passage of time.
Preserving the records
To salvage the association’s old maps, Amsler turned to the SEDA Council of Governments, a group that operates out of a building south of Lewisburg. Amsler, a former Perry County Commissioner, had worked with the group before, during the modernization and computerization of the county’s government.
To digitize the maps, the group first scanned them, said Scott Kramer, an IT specialist with SEDA COG. That worked for some of the maps, but some of those drawn on window blinds were too deteriorated to be scanned completely.
“I felt like I was unrolling a Dead Sea scroll,” he laughed. The damaged maps were scanned in sections, which then had to be re-assembled on a computer.
None of the sections overlapped, so the team took all of the scans and began piecing them together, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. Because the maps were so faded, it was difficult to tell which aligned together. To locate the plots, the team traveled to the cemetery and took GPS measurements for well-defined graves, markers that would later become “keystones” for their digital maps.
With that information, the team was able to overlay their scanned master map over aerial photography to identify each plot, or familial groups of graves. Each plot was then geolocated and assigned a proper set of GPS coordinates. It was - according to Kramer and Jim Baker, the chief of the IT group - a bit of a challenge.
Each map was drawn to a different scale, which had to be reconciled to form a cohesive picture of the cemetery. Then there were the graves that didn’t appear on any map that also had to be accounted for. There were discrepancies between the note cards and the old maps, changes in the name and numbers of sections, and the fact that over time the edges of the cemetery and the surrounding woods have blended and shifted as well.
There were a few breaks for the team. Years ago the index cards had been computerized, so that information was able to be brought in and connected to the new map.
The finished product is now online - a searchable database of cemetery records, each geocoded on a Google map. Family members and genealogists can search for a name and quickly find out where the grave is located in the cemetery.
“Now you can get on the system, type the name in and it’ll tell you what section it’s in,” said Amsler. “Think what this will do for the genealogists. It’ll really be nice for the area … and it will preserve our records.”
The cemetery association was able to pay for SEDA-COG’s services through a state grant, and Amsler says he thinks other groups could benefit from the work.
“There probably are some cemeteries in the same situation we were in,” he said, racing against time to preserve their records.
On Wednesday a man visited the Wentzs at their home and office adjacent the grounds. He was looking for a relative - had made several trips - but was unable to find her. As Charlie flicked through the old card catalogue to no avail, Fran hopped on her computer. A couple of minutes later, she yelled into the room: “Found her!”
Information from: Pennlive.com, https://www.pennlive.com
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