Gravehopping Tales - Part 1

by Gregory J Winters
May 2007

 

Hunting for the gravestones of our ancestors is not all about just finding old monuments in remote areas.  The entire experience is comprised of excitement and discovery.  This essay is about a few of these experiences.  (Thanks to my cousin, Shannon, for the succinct page title.)

 


As was the custom in the Days of Yore in the hills of West Virginia, cemeteries which were not a part of a church’s grounds were either farm family plots or community yards located (for that time period) a considerable distance from a village or town.  Additionally, these latter graveyards were often positioned at the top of some of the highest knolls, making one wonder just how these folks managed to make it up there time and again, braving all sorts of inclement weather, and in times of acute grief.

Getting to the top of these knolls even today is not an easy task.  Many of the cemeteries are located on private property which has been developed over time to reflect modern culture, not accommodate ‘irrelevant’ aspects of the past.  If the cemeteries are even kept up at all (mowing, fencing), it is fortunate.

As one begins the trek up the hillside, the remains of the old lorry roads are usually still there, but they are almost always is extremely poor condition.  Annual spring thaws carve the roads with ruts of running water.  As rocks become exposed, they shift and ultimately collect in various piles along the way.  Lack of use also permits overgrowth of ‘nice’ foliage, such as poison ivy and thistles – always fun to walk through!

Many times the paths themselves are so steep that if you were to simply fall forward, you couldn’t fall down.  Climbing these is no place for the out-of-shape!

The locals simply accept their terrain and don’t seem to think much about it.  If they love or work in a particularly hilly area, then they have provided for some sort of vehicle which will navigate the terrain and elements.  Many folks also have an ATV for those backroads that ‘regular’ vehicles dare not attempt to navigate.

I remember a couple of years ago I was attempting to locate Pleasant Ridge Methodist Church cemetery in Marshall County, West Virginia driving in from the west.  This is no easy task, and the more I drove, the narrower the roads got.  I reached the point where I was driving through thick forest brush on a bumpy two track (I was in my Honda minivan).

Getting frustrated that I seemed to be making little progress, I finally happened upon a clearing where I discovered two off-road enthusiasts who had a pair of ATV’s which were covered in mud.  I pulled up alongside them and rolled down my window and inquired as to my whereabouts in terms of the cemetery.  They stared at me kind of wide-eyed and one of them said, “How did ya git dat car back in here?”  I had to laugh.  It was easy to understand that even a minivan is considered a passenger vehicle by the back hills folk, nothing like a full size pickup truck.

I asked them if I was on the right road to Pleasant Ridge, and they replied, “Well, it depends upon whatcha mean by ‘right road.’  The road yer on sure enough goes to Pleasant Ridge, but you keep goin’ the direction you’ve been goin’ and you’ll never get that thang [my van] outta there!”  Evidently, Providence provided to backwoods ‘angels’ to stop me from a costly embarrassment.

After some more discussion, it was determined that I had to go back the way I had come and approach Pleasant Ridge from the east.  The directions the two fellows provided were excellent and I located my site.

Finding the sites themselves can sometimes be a trick even if the roads to the general areas are obliging.  On most occasions, time is of the essence and there is much private property to deal with, so enlisting the assistance of the locals is absolutely required.  These interactions end up being wonderful experiences and are certainly the most fun part of all the journey.

I recently went in search of the lone gravesite of one Zackquill Cochran, g-grandfather of Letha A. Wayt’s husband, Anthony Hart.  All I knew was that it was near this tiny town of Reader, West Virginia in Wetzel County.  I arrived in Reader (after passing by a terrible jeep-meets-old-oak-tree accident) just as a strong spring snow squall was temporarily subsiding.

I passed back and forth through the little burg, but I could not see anything, so I stopped into the sole little grocery/party store.  There was a young girl behind the counter who was talking to a friend when I walked in.  (It was great to see them chatting and laughing, having the time to share a special moment without a bunch of uppity city-slickers impatiently crowding in line.)  When they saw me, they stopped talking and the girl asked if she could help me.  Not knowing that the other girl wasn’t a customer, I told the clerk to finish with her, but they both laughed at my ignorance – in a fine, friendly way.

I explained that I was looking for the gravesite of Zackquill Cochran and they both kind of wrinkled up their noses and shrugged at one another.  I produced the papers I had printed from the Internet showing a photo of the graveyard.  The friend said to the clerk, surprised, “Hey, ain’t that your mom’s fence?”  The other girl said, “Sure looks like it, doesn’t it?  Hey, we’ve got this gravestone in our back yard.”  Turning to me:  “You wanna look at it?”  I enthusiastically replied, so the girl grabbed her cell phone and started to walk out from behind the counter, “OK, I’ll take you there.”  I protested that she needn’t leave her post, but she laughed and said, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.  Besides, it’s right out back!”

Sure enough, I had parked my car less than twenty feed from ol’ Zackquill’s burial site.  The sun had peeked out and I was able to get a couple of really good snapshots.  The girls watched me curiously, probably wondering about someone who had driven all the way from the state of Michigan just to take a photo of a gravestone.  Probably even stranger for them was the look of satisfaction on my face after I had taken the shots.

By then, the friend had to leave, but I had a couple of more favors to ask of the girl clerk.  First, did she have a restroom I could use?  Yes, I could use the women’s room since the men’s was out of order.  As to my somewhat skeptical look, she correctly anticipated, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure no one goes in there.”

One last question:  I was looking for a site called Long Cemetery which was supposed to be right next to the bridge in town.  She thought for a minute, but couldn’t remember any cemetery so close to the main road.  She said there was a cemetery up on the hill just outside of town – maybe that was the one the paper was referring to.  She also said that if I got stuck, there was a pool hall on the other side of the tracks run by a man named Denny who had lived in Reader all of his life (a somewhat astounding thing, once one contemplated on it for a minute).

I thanked the girl for all her help and began my journey up the hill to the cemetery, all the while thinking of this Denny character whose universe consisted of a few square miles of beautiful West Virginia hillsides, a railroad track, and stretch of state highway, and, of course, the pool hall.

The cemetery seemed to be further out of town than I had expected, but there it was, right on the left adjacent to some private property.  I slowed down checking out where I would park.  There seemed to be a gravel drive which led to a chained gate, so I chose that.  I got out of the car and began to wander the cemetery.

It’s at this point where something almost always seems to overtake me.  As I walk from my car into these hallowed places, time seems to at first stand still, then start a slow journey backward.  Many times I don’t set right in on the hunt for my targets, I simply take some time to wander around and gather in the names and dates, making mental notes and wondering who these folks were.

Invariably, I seek out the oldest sections of the cemetery.  These were the true pioneers and I’m drawn to pay some sort of respects to them, even if they were not related to me.  I sometimes wonder, though, if they came into contact with my ancestors, and what they talked about.  Did they share a laugh or two?  Was the contact in the midst of strife or tragedy?  Did they ever talk about the future, maybe even the possibility of someone standing at their gravesites trying his best to communicate his thoughts to them?

Ahh…there they were – the Cochran family, ol’ Zackquill’s descendants and in-laws of our Wayts.  I walked around the stones a turn or two wondering how well did the Wayt family know these Cochrans?  Were they the same Cochrans whom my g-g-g-grandfather, Nathaniel Wayt knew and named a son after?  Were the Harts, who married into this family, the same ones that I have photos of in my grandmother Wayt’s scrapbook?  The speculation…but then, I noticed that something was wrong:  my Cochrans weren’t here!  Instantly, I wondered if I was in the right cemetery.

It was then that I noticed a truck pulling up behind my car and the driver staring at me across the way.  It was from this vantage point that I say that I had not parked in a generic cemetery drive, but in his own driveway.  I looked around and saw that the actual drive to the cemetery was located on the opposite side of the yard and felt bad that I had guessed incorrectly.  I think he understood since he had to have noticed the out-of-state license plates on my car.

As the guy drove to his house, I then noticed the old front entrance to the cemetery, long since abandoned since the road had been dug from the hillside in front of it making getting up the steep side prohibitive.  I leaned out over the front rail to try and read what the old wooden sign said, but to no avail – I was going to have to tread the steep hillside.

Climbing through the fence, I gingerly baby-stepped along the ridgeline until I got to the sign:  Mt. Olive Cemetery – yuk.  It was no big deal because the graveyard itself was beautiful and I had learned about the rest of the Cochran relatives.  (Traveling around the beautiful West Virginia hills is never a waste of time even with the occasional investigative dead-end.)  I realized that I was going to have to recruit Denny to sort things out.

Back down the hill, I discovered that the ‘pool hall’ was actually a multi-purpose enterprise consisting of video rentals, various small sundries, beer and soda pop, video game machines, a Euchre club, and…billiards.  Spotting an older gentleman behind the counter, I walked over and said, “You must be Denny.”  Somewhat curious, he nodded his head and I went into my spiel about the ‘cemetery next to the bridge.’

At first, Denny didn’t know what I was talking about.  He asked if I meant the one up the hill, but I informed him that Mt. Olivet wasn’t the one I was looking for.  Besides, now that I had the chance to check my records, it seemed to me that this Long Cemetery should be quite a bit smaller than Mt. Olivet.

Denny motioned me to come over to the door and he pointed across the highway to a couple of homes up on the hill.  He mentioned that he knew of a small cemetery on the hill behind those homes ‘behind the pines.’  I surveyed the properties back and forth and couldn’t see what he was referring to.  “Behind the pines,” he said.  “Up there.”  What he really meant was UP THERE – WAY up there.  I kind of gulped and asked him how I was going to get to the top of the hill and he said that he was sure the property owners would allow me access.

I thanked Denny and proceeded across the highway up to the closest house to ‘the pines.’  Looking through the patio doors, I saw that there was some kind of gathering going on inside, but I decided not to let that deter me, so I rapped on the door and a woman answered.  I asked her if she would mind if I parked my car in her driveway for a couple of minutes and went up the hill to the cemetery on her property.  “Oh, my!” she exclaimed, and motioned for one of the male members of the party to accompany her at the door.

I began to get a little nervous wondering what she had interpreted my request to be, but then I noticed that everyone in the party had name badges pinned to their shirts that indicated they belonged to a church group.  When one of the men came over, before he had a chance to interpret the goings on for himself, I apologized for interrupting their meeting and asked again if it would be alright to go up to the cemetery.

He raised his eyebrows, “A cemetery?”  The woman turned back to me and said, “We’ve only been living here two days!  We just moved in this week.  No one ever told us that there is a cemetery on our property!”  She seemed genuinely surprised and somewhat upset at this news.  I told her about Denny and why I wanted to go there, so she calmed down a little bit and directed me to her sole neighbor next door for better information, granting me access in advance.

I thanked the folks and headed next door to see what I could find out.  I had to walk past two very large and extra-curious dogs to get to the door, but a woman answered and affirmed that yes, indeed there was a small cemetery at the top of the hill.  She pointed to the drive way that went up one side of the hill, then indicated that there was an additional road which would take me to the top where the cemetery was.  I asked her if simply walking would be the easiest way to get up there, and she wrinkled up her face and said, “As opposed to what?”  Sheepishly, I kind of glanced over at my car, and picking up on that, she said, “You’re not going to get a car up there.”

By this time, the woman’s husband had appeared and he affirmed what his wife had said.  In addition, he wanted to know who I was related to up there.  I told him about the Cochrans and he nodded his head understandingly.  I couldn’t really tell if it was a nod of having simply seen the stones, or of having some additional knowledge about the interrees, but I decided not to press it having taken so much time to find the cemetery as it was.

I started up the path and for awhile, it was pleasant enough.  I could see remains of very old cement blocks which had once been used as a lorry road.  I got to the turning point (an old wooden shed), and suddenly everything kind of ended.  I could barely make out the two ruts where the road used to be, but I carried on through this small wooded area until I came to the road that actually went up to the cemetery.  It was one of the steepest roads I had ever been on.  I marveled at how folks had to have walked this road all the way up the hill alongside a horsecart with a casket on it.

Huffing and puffing, I finally made it to the top and it was well worth it.  There I found a beautiful little cemetery on a hill overlooking miles of Wetzel County hillsides.  It was so quiet and peaceful.  There, at the entrance of the burial area, was a modern stone with the name ‘Long’ on it (obviously, where the name comes from), but I had wondered what it was called before those folks were buried there.

There were my Cochrans!  James B. was buried with a traditional gravestone marking his site, but wife Mary Lantz, curiously, had been entombed in an above-the-ground crypt marked with a traditional gravestone.  (In all my travels, I had never seen such a combination before.)  I grabbed the photos, paused for awhile to reflect upon where I had come, then started back down the steep hill.

The neighbor man was still tending to his chores, “Did you get what you were after?”  “Sure did!” I replied.  And a whole lot more.