I don’t think that any of us want to admit this, but Mason County, for some odd reason, has a real knack for destroying cemeteries. I’m still not 100 percent sure why, but it happens, and quite often at that. And it’s not just now… This has been going on for most of our history.
When the ancient Native Americans controlled our region, they built large burial mounds to hold the bodies and ashes of their ancestors. This practice had died off by the time of the Shawnee, but they still respected these mounds as the graves of their ancestors and made every effort to preserve them, even going to war if needed. Indeed, when white settlers first reached our valley, they were astonished by the size of some of these mounds, the largest of which could equal the height of a three-story building. Sadly, this astonishment didn’t stop the settlers from making every effort to destroy them.
At one time, it’s said that there were more than 70 mounds in the general vicinity of Point Pleasant, with hundreds more throughout the county. Most of these were on the “bottoms,” between the hills and rivers. In other words, they were located right in the middle of prime farmland. Early settlers, continuing to the present day, didn’t hesitate to plow over these mounds, eventually reducing them to nothing. The few mounds that have survived to the present day were either saved by fair-minded farmers who realized their cultural value, or they were simply out of reach, located along the ridges and hilltops.
But the destruction did not stop there. As European settlers moved into Mason County, new problems arose. The first to be seen was livestock. Cattle, goats, and other animals see headstones as nothing more than something that is in their way. This problem is easily fixed by simply putting in a fence, but like anything else, the easiest solution is usually overlooked. Cattle remain a problem at some cemeteries even today.
Another problem is vandals. This was less of a problem in the 1800s, when many cemeteries were still on family farms, but as cemeteries grew old and forgotten, vandals quickly moved in. To make matters worse, it wasn’t always as simple as kids tipping over headstones. There are still stories told of Klan meetings in some of the more secluded cemeteries.
Finally, the worst of the destruction arrived during the 1900s under the disguise of “progress.” As the old industries, salt and traditional coal mining, dried up, new industries moved into the region promising jobs, though they too would dry up eventually. Two of these industries have a particularly bad track record with cemeteries.
The first is the West Virginia Ordnance Works, known today as the TNT Area. As the federal government bought out the farms which would make up the munitions factory, they also chose which family cemeteries needed to be moved. Those that needed moved were reportedly hastily dug up and moved to the Dr. Jesse Bennett Cemetery just to the south; however, there’s a possibility numerous unmarked graves were missed. These were then reportedly built over and forgotten. Those cemeteries that weren’t moved were also reportedly simply ignored and allowed to crumble.
The second industry reportedly has an even worse track record with cemeteries. Strip mining became an easy replacement to traditional coal mines in the 1950s, with many opening in Mason County. There are quite a few examples that came out of this, but I’ll stick to one that’s good and one that, well, isn’t.
Behind Hartford, in an area once known as the Big Woods, the Somervilles had a cabin. Long story short, Mary Somerville was brutally killed and buried in this area. (I’ll get to her story at a later time.) In the 1980s, as the strip mines expanded, they uncovered her grave. To their credit, they stopped work, called in Foglesong Funeral Home, and moved her grave to the Somerville-Washington-Zuspan Cemetery. All in all, they did exactly what a company should do.
However, in an entirely different situation and location, in the far eastern corner of the county at the Elmwood Cemetery, there are some reports that the headstones were thrown into a pile on a nearby hillside, but those haven’t been confirmed.
This trend needs to stop, and the only way that can be done is to document the cemeteries that are left, make their location a matter of public record, and work with private companies to minimize their impact on burial sites. Mason County may have a history of destroying cemeteries, but if we start now, it can be just that. History.
Information for this article from cemetery surveys and “History of Mason County (1987).”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society. The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be 6:30 p.m., Feb. 17 at the New Haven Library.