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Columbus' Union Cemetery Marks 200th Year

The community of Franklinton, across the river from downtown Columbus, is the oldest settlement in the area, dating back to 1797. Another community, a few miles north on the west bank of the Olentangy River, came into being about nine years later. Through the years it's grown to more than 70,000 on just 128 acres. It's Union Cemetery. One June 11th a series of events celebrate its 200th birthday.

On Sunday, historical re-enactors, singers, and an ice cream social will be part of events marking the 200th anniversary observance. Union's general manager Paul T. Walker, Jr. hopes people unfamiliar with cemetery will attend.

"A lot of people drive by and they don't realize how beautiful it is and how well maintained it is," Walker says. "It is a peaceful, restful place."

200 years ago, before the crush of Columbus surrounded it, the cemetery site would have been idyllic. Historian Ed Lentz will guide visitors on tours this Sunday. He says the cemetery began with the passing of a man named Balthazar Hess.

"He came into the Ohio country with his family relatively late, when he was in his fifties, and settled on 400 acres," Lentz says. "And when he died he was buried here on a little knoll overlooking the Olentangy River."

That was in 1806, 10 years before the end of the major wars with the British and the Indians. Back then the area was forested frontier. But as time passed the cemetery became the final resting place for families whose names are still known today.

"Cooke, Lane, Kinnear, Kenny, Maynard, Ackerman. These were the original families. And the roads that ran near their homes came to be named after them."

The monuments that bear those names stand in the cemetery's oldest section just north of the OSU campus between the river and Olentangy River Road.

Union, like many older cemeteries, is a chronicle of history. There's the grave of David Beers who was held captive by Native Americans for 10 years before he came to Ohio. He lived to be 104. The cabin he built before his death in 1850 is still lived in.

There are veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil wars including Joel Parsons, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who fought at the Battle of Vicksburg. There's the grave of Walter Standish Smith whose epitaph says he invented the exact weight scale. Ed Lentz says Union has better known names as well.

"Woody Hayes, Dave Thomas, "Chic" Harley, football player. When the Ohio Stadium was completed in the early 1920s, sometimes people referred to it as the 'House that Harley built' because of his notable success," Lentz says.

Visitor Beverly Humphrey says the proximity of the Horseshoe isn't lost on her late father. She says her dad Harold Crego still listens to OSU's marching band from his eternal resting place near North Broadway. Humphrey and relative Linda Nash Scheiderer were driving through the older section of Union Thursday morning looking for the graves of departed relatives.

"We're cousins. Our grandparents are here in the old part and our Aunt Ethel is of one of our mom's sisters. She's in here. Aunt Mary's in here."

Scheiderer and Humphrey say they think Sunday's event is appropriate recognition for the people buried here.

"I think it's a nice tribute to the people that have gone before us for them to do something like that," says Scheiderer.

"And to set aside a special day just for the cemetery because it is such an old cemetery and there's such much art here even. I like to come through here and look at the stones because they're so old," says Humphrey.

"Architectural designs."

"And it's always been so serene."

Historian Lentz agrees. He says you see the evolution of American funerary art simply by wandering the grounds. Some grave stones are topped with lambs - a symbol of the loss of an innocent child. There are urns - a symbol of the body -- draped by cloth which represents sorrow or mourning.

In the newer section across from Riverside hospital, there's a recently added marker at the Chappelear family plot that proclaims "For God and Country Methodist Republicans." One of the deceased is quoted as saying "I would rather be in Circleville."

Today Union remains one of the Columbus area's oldest working cemeteries, and according to Ed Lentz, one of the most interesting.

Cemeteries are more than just places where people are buried. They're nature preserves. This large piece of real estate almost by definition becomes a Botanist and bird lover's delight, Lentz says.

The 200th anniversary observance will begin at 1 p.m. Sunday. The public is invited to attend.