On a cool autumn afternoon I took what proved to be a disappointing journey to a decaying, rural Southwestern Pennsylvania town in search of the grave of my great-great-grandmother, a descendant of a soldier who served in the American Revolution.
The destination resulted from the long-held belief of some amateur genealogists that my ancestor, Phoebe Ann (Sheppard) Hart, was buried in 1898 in historic Hill Grove Cemetery just outside Connellsville, a city whose heyday was forged in coal mining and coke-making along the banks of Youghiogheny River.
I arrived planning to walk the entire grounds looking for the graves of any members of the Hart family, the maiden name of my mother, June Hart Beveridge, only to become immediately shocked by the sight of this Fayette County cemetery’s condition.
“What happened to this place? Was it undermined or something?” I asked a woman walking along one of the roads.
She leaned inside the passenger window of my Ford sedan and revealed that the tombstones here bearing the names of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were toppled by vandals about five years ago. She went on to say the cemetery association had recently hired a new landscaper who has been working hard to remove brush covering some of the headstones.
It was the second known time vandals had visited this cemetery off Snyder Street since 1936, when three boys were taken into juvenile custody after admitting to causing several hundred dollars worth of damage by overturning 35 tombstones, The Pittsburgh Press reported at the time.
A nearby sign indicated Uniontown attorney John Cupp would accept donations for the cemetery through an address, yet it contained no telephone number to reach him.
I left this unfortunate burial ground without finding a trace of the final resting place of Phoebe Anne Hart, or those of any Harts.
Her grandfather, Henry Lenox Sheppard, fought for America’s independence in Massachusetts, and, in 1784, bought hundreds of acres of Pennsylvania land, joining the first settlers of Westmoreland County.
She never learned to read, census records indicated, and married a blacksmith from Connellsville named Jacob Isaac Hart, an adventure seeker who would decide to join the Western Movement at about age 50. By 1870 he had relocated with his wife and three of their seven children to Saline, Ohio. Soon he took his skills and family to the wild and booming city of Abilene, Kansas, where he died in 1871, supposedly of dysentery. Phoebe and her children quickly returned to Connellsville, where she died at age 79 in 1898.
Meanwhile, Hill Grove Cemetery wasn’t the only burial grounds in her hometown to suffer a terrible fate.
Her father, Theophilus Ebenezer Sheppard, was initially buried in Connell Graveyard, which disappeared from the map when its land was needed in Connellsville to build a Carnegie Library.
The morbid and curious flocked to the graveyard along South Pittsburgh Street in April 1900 when his remains and the other bodies there were exhumed and relocated, with original tombstones, to the nearby Chestnut Hill Cemetery, the Connellsville Courier reported at the time. Oddly enough, two coffins were found in the same grave, and there was another marked by a tombstone bearing Indian engravings.
In another attempt to find Phoebe’s grave, I visited Connellsville Historical Society’s headquarters in the library, only to learn from the librarian that the society was in limbo as it relocated to another building. The library neither had a copy of the society’s 1984 book, “Cemetery Records; Chestnut Hill Cemetery and Hill Grove Cemetery, Connellsville,” on its shelves or available for sale to the public.
A couple of phone calls to the society’s president produced a copy of the 133-page book at a cost of just under $17 in a deal arranged in a local art gallery. She didn’t appear that much interested in why I wanted the book, and the gallery worker didn’t have much to add about Hill Grove, other than to say it had run out of money for restorations.
The book indicated there were three Harts buried in Hill Grove, none of whom was Pheobe, and that no one with that last name would be found buried in Chestnut Hill. It revealed, though, that some poor soul named George E. Hart was buried in 1875 at Chestnut Hill, but, to no surprise, his stone was down and overgrown.
Out of curiosity, I embarked to Chestnut Hill, off Wills Road, thinking her son and my great-grandfather, Mack Kelly Hart, surely would have buried his mother there with her relatives rather than beside George. It turned out to be neglected, too, and in varied stages of restoration.
There, not far from the road, stood a large white marble tombstone bearing the Hart family name and little else because time had weathered away much of the information about the graves it marked.
Upon closer examination one side appeared to include the date of the death of Phoebe Ann Hart and indicated the person buried there, like her, had died at age 79.
I left believing (hoping) I had likely found her grave, and with a new appreciation for those whom are dedicated to genealogy because so much that is out there tends to be inaccurate.