Waynesburg University students are keeping history alive in an unlikely place – a graveyard.
Professor Karen Fisher Younger’s public history class spent last semester researching the people who are buried in the Hill’s Schoolhouse Cemetery, off Route 21/18 near Waynesburg. What they found was a preview of what 1800s life was like in Greene County.
“I hoped to introduce the students to history outside of the textbooks,” Fisher Younger says.
The project began with her former student David O’Donoghue of Waynesburg, who wanted to restore the cemetery as part of a senior project.
The cemetery dates to the 1800s and sits in a small plot of land near the university’s baseball diamonds. It was first owned by the Hill family, which settled on the property in 1764, according to Fisher Younger, but now it’s owned by the college.
Over time, stones toppled over, cracked and broke, and some were even moved to other graves. O’Donoghue, who has since graduated from Waynesburg with a history degree, started cleaning up the graveyard last summer. On March 18, the school held a workshop on how to restore and repair grave sites, led by Robert Myers of the Gravekeepers of Pennsylvania.
Fisher Younger’s students participated in the workshop and afterward began their research into who was buried there and what their lives were like. Most of that research was done at Cornerstone Genealogy Society and the Greene County Courthouse in Waynesburg, Fisher Younger says.
Most of the people they discovered came from three prominent families in Greene County at that time – Throckmorton, Rees and Hill.
Cassandra Kemp, a junior at Waynesburg, said she enjoyed the hands-on class that had her researching the deaths of seven Throckmorton children who are buried at the site. She said they were sixth, seventh and eighth generations, and their ages ranged from infancy to 6 years old when they died.
“The children all died very young,” she says. “These people, they meant something in that age. They were important to the area and the community.”
Fisher Younger says that in the 1820s to the 1880s, it wasn’t uncommon for children to die that young. In fact, she notes that out of the 35 graves in the cemetery, 18 of them are children under the age of 8.
“In the Rees family, four kids died – three of them within three days of each other,” Fisher Younger says. “That’s 19th century life.”
Those Rees children who died would have been Matthew Cumberledge’s aunts and uncles. Cumberledge is a correctional officer at SCI-Fayette who, as a 20-year hobby, researches his genealogy and local history in Greene County. He participated in the students’ workshop at the cemetery and talked to students about his ancestors.
“A small family plot like that being maintained and restored is not something you see often,” he says, complimenting the students on their work. “The work they’ve put in is well-rounded to get a full picture of what that time was like.”
He said the three children who died three days apart were John, Robert and Caroline Rees.
“There were a lot of flu epidemics and sickness at that time,” he said.
They share a gravestone at the cemetery and are buried near their parents, John and Catharine Rees, who were Cumberledge’s fourth great-grandparents. Catharine Rees’ father was Joseph Throckmorton, Cumberledge’s fifth great-grandfather.
“They were farmers mostly, and hard workers,” he says about his ancestors. “They were one of the more prominent families in that time.”
Prominence played a big role in what information the students were able to find. One of the students, Tess Maloney, was assigned to research the grave belonging to Margaret Pipes, a married woman who never had children and died in 1833.
Maloney had a difficult time finding anything out about Pipes, because at that time, women mostly stayed in the home and took care of children. Since Pipes didn’t have children, not much of a record was left from her.
“No one will ever know if she did a lot in her life, because she didn’t have any children,” Maloney says. “People cared more about men.”
Fisher Younger says the students responded well to the class and she plans to continue that class for other students as long as it takes them to completely restore the cemetery, which she predicts could take a few years.
“They loved it,” she says. “And they’re the guinea pigs, too. I didn’t know what they were going to find at the genealogical society.”
She says future classes will build on the questions for which they don’t have answers, and she would eventually like to build a website for the cemetery with the families’ histories.
“My vision is to have the students give walkthroughs of the cemetery to the public as an open-air museum,” Fisher Younger says. “I’m more excited now than I was at the beginning of the semester. I love showing student that history can be fun.”
For students like Cassandra Kemp, who wants to pursue a career in history, this class was a “great step” in that direction. “It’s got me into researching my own family history, and it’s exciting,” Kemp says.