By Konstantine Fekos
GREENWOOD TOWNSHIP —
The genealogists, historians and local residents who scoured overgrown, knee-high fields to uncover Old Geneva Cemetery described the sight as bittersweet — awe-inspiring in its significance, but in a depressing state of disrepair.
The centuries-old burial site sits under a lone tree, just a stone’s throw from a private residence on Hafer Lane by Route 285, and contains the scattered, broken remnants of headstones engraved with the names of Geneva’s founding families and early settlers.
“I was so pleased to have found it,” said Carl Hall, who left his Illinois home armed only with his personal, albeit extensive, research to embark on this historical journey. “But when I got there, I couldn’t understand why anyone would just let it go like this.”
Two gravestones out of the handful pulled up from the sod still have their original mounts. The rest lay flat, mostly unidentifiable. Their few, visible markings date the cemetery around the mid-1800s.
“They’re like a jigsaw puzzle,” Hall said. “Not a single stone is in one piece.”
Kathy Brubaker, of the Linesville Historical Society, accompanied Hall and a small search party, comprised mainly of Hall’s local relatives, armed with landscaping and gardening tools.
Together they cleared the tall grass around the site and unearthed the first few stones early last week.
“There’s still about four people, that we know of, who we haven’t found yet,” Brubaker said. “I’m estimating about 32 people were buried here.”
Brubaker joined the search on Hall’s request and helped compile an approximate list of the late Geneva residents believed to have been buried there.
Although her work is based in Linesville, Brubaker continued working with Hall after the first groundbreaking, believing in the site’s county-wide historical significance.
“All of the families who settled here originally are tied into one another,” she said. “I was out here a couple of years ago trying to find it. No one had any idea where it was.”
The search for Old Geneva Cemetery began as a routine investigation by Hall, who personally tends to his family’s genealogy, often toting several history books and whole binders full of family records.
“What I do is get a picture of the headstone to go with the individual,” he said, referencing his extensive family history, complete with wedding licenses, birth certificates, military documentation and more.
With the roots of his family tree in mind, Hall set out for Geneva in search of his great-great ancestor John Hall, an early settler in the region said to have owned and developed sizable portions of land prior to his listed death in 1832.
“He may have been from Holland or Ireland originally, about five or six generations back,” Hall said. “I believe he came to Geneva from New Jersey and served in the War of 1812.”
John Hall preceded other early settlers in death, including Thomas Abbott and John Sutton, two of Geneva’s founding fathers, according to Carl Hall.
“Thomas, John and Abraham Sutton were three brothers from Salem County (N.J.),” Hall said. “Thomas and Abraham changed their last names to Abbott and Peterson (respectively), according to the history books. Those families are all related.”
As a result of their influence and local development, modern-day Geneva encompasses what was known as “Sutton’s Corners” in the 1800s, Brubaker said.
Brubaker compiled her and Hall’s collective research and historical findings, including a list of people believed to have been buried there.
A few names that stand out are John Sutton, Thomas Sutton Abbott and Ezra Peterson, Abraham’s son, and John Hall.
Hunting for graves
In an effort to achieve his goal, Hall enlisted the help of Brubaker as well as several local relatives, including his cousin Scott Hall of Meadville.
“From what I gathered, a few people knew about (the cemetery), but they didn’t have a lot of interest in it,” Scott said. “I got some more relatives involved a few months ago.”
Their search issued an unexpected challenge: local rumors and research only hinted at the cemetery’s location. Even Crawford County Historical Society records could only approximate the area, according to Ed Edinger, secretary and treasurer.
“We never saw any markers because the cemetery area was solid with vegetation,” Edinger said in a letter to the Tribune last week.
Edinger’s letter included part of a census of local cemeteries compiled by the Crawford County Historical Society around 2007. The report’s estimated location of the burial site matched Hall’s findings.
“The surveyors never saw this cemetery,” the report read, revealing the peculiar twist that kept the gravestones hidden in the tall grass. “It is said the grave markers were once removed from the cemetery and then returned, but left scattered and lying flat on the ground.”
This hearsay account was also corroborated by Carl and Scott Hall, who mentioned rumors of the headstones being taken away at some point to make a sidewalk.
Leads from local residents brought the Halls to Geneva resident and landowner Jim Hafer, who said his family owned the surrounding fields for at least a century. While many details have been lost to the recesses of time, Hafer confirmed their suspicions when he granted them access to the grounds.
“The only thing I know is what my father told me,” Hafer said. “At one time, the stones were picked up and laid down to make a sidewalk. The community went after the individual who did that, and then the stones were brought back and thrown every which way.”
Hafer indicated that no one maintained the cemetery over the years and very few recognized its existence.
“Veterans used to put two or three flags out there, but they haven’t for the past few years,” Hafer said. “They just stopped. I don’t know why.”
“I think it’s a shame,” Carl Hall said. “My hope is to get other organizations involved; get some ground penetration and see how many stones are actually here.”
While the larger and more legible stones were found only a few inches below the soil, Hall believes there might be more to find underneath the top layer, although a more thorough excavation would prove costly and time-consuming.
No one’s in danger of digging up bodies at this point, Brubaker said.
Carl Hall and Brubaker don’t believe Old Geneva Cemetery is especially large, but they haven’t expanded their search as much as they would like.
“I’m about at my end; I can’t do much more,” Carl Hall said. “I’m hoping someone will come and clean (the cemetery) up a bit.”
More realistic plans include looking into headstone repair and a roadsign indicating the gravesite’s location.
“I’d like to see if the county or the state would put up a memorial sign or something that people can see from the road,” Carl Hall said.
Brubaker plans to contact veteran service organizations or monument companies to see if they can replace some of the headstones.
In the meantime, she’s been putting together a book containing every piece of known information about Old Geneva Cemetery available between her and Carl Hall’s research.
She hopes to give a finished copy to other historical societies as well as any living descendants of Geneva’s founders.
“These were the first settlers,” Brubaker said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have what we have today.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.