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Reflecting on those who came before

Published June 05. 2010 09:00AM

I hope everyone had a pleasant Memorial Day and paused to remember the brave men and women who sacrificed themselves during wars to defend our country and its principles from all enemies of our freedom. I was happy that one of the ways to honor these patriots as well as the forefathers and foremothers who paved the way for us here in the Panther Valley was to rededicate the Grand Army Cemetery in Summit Hill.

As President of the Board, I must say that the hard working men and women who have volunteered to work on the board to restore this cemetery to its past grandeur have been doing a great job in leading the many volunteers who have assisted us in rehabilitating the property.

After the dedication service on Saturday, I walked with our Board Secretary Carol Miller as she gave attendees of the ceremony a tour of the grounds and introduced them to the varied architecture of the monuments but more importantly the people for whom they were erected. There are several thousand people buried in this cemetery from throughout the entire Panther Valley dating back to the mid 1800's.

It wasn't until the Conner Post of the Grand Army of the Republic took charge of the grounds that the cemetery became a GAR cemetery and from that point forward among the many who have been interred here are many, many soldiers from the Civil War forward. As I walked the silent but familiar paths of this cemetery the night before the dedication, my thoughts reached out to these folks who came before me and I wondered about what their lives were like here in this place called Panther Valley.

In the early 1800s, Summit Hill and the surrounding area was inhospitable wilderness dotted here and there with cabins. Native Americans or Indians as they were called up to the point we became politically correct roamed the area freely and were quite hostile to early settlers throughout the Mahoning Valley. As settlements grew into villages and villages into towns, life was rough in this area. Many of the people not only in this cemetery but in others throughout the Panther Valley lived during this time.

When the Civil War occurred, they enlisted or were conscripted directly out of the mines. These men went to war for a Union that probably was peripheral to their concerns about protecting their families and homes. They more likely went because they were too poor to opt out of war, an option that has existed for time immemorial. When they came back, they returned heroes but ended up back in the mines working long hours for scraps. When they died, they were laid to rest around the paths on which I walked reverently on the eve before that dedication.

Many don't think of our area as being important to our country's history, but it was a critical region in the country's formation and things we take for granted. Many who died in the mines, especially those accused of being Mollie Maguires, were instrumental in laying the foundation for the labor union movement that has protected men and women workers in this country for decades. It was our miners and their culture that led to the formation of unions and we should be proud of that.

People don't realize this area was run not by law and civil authority but by the mine bosses. Their own private police forces were law and order in this area and it was their power and influence that stretched from the smallest burg to the office of the governor of Pennsylvania. While the United States was founded on equal rights for all, for much of the 1800's those rights didn't extend at the same level to the poor or worse to those enslaved.

While miners were "free people" in essence, their livelihood was more one of an indentured servant and when the Mollies went to trial their rights were completely abridged by the corrupt power of the bosses who had the prosecutors, police, judge and defense attorneys in their back pocket. No wonder those men died on the gallows. Yes, the people among whom I walked lived in nothing short than a frontier town not much better than the old west.

Now here they lay in this cemetery as evening begins to cloak the grounds on which I walk. The names hopefully are important to someone still although I fear many are slowly forgotten as families move or die out from lack of descendants. It reminds me of the transience of life in general and how important it is to live each day completely because one day we will all be an unfamiliar name on a monument or in a record book somewhere.

Deep inside I'm grateful to these people who toiled and worked hard to provide a town in which we could live, and I realize there is very little that could be done to give them our thanks for their sacrifices. They are at rest now and it is as I walk around these grounds, I find that the best thing I can do for them is to continue to work on making sure this cemetery continues forward and is cared for with respect and reverence.

That is all we can ask of ourselves and each other. So I ask each of you, before you drive by not only the GAR Cemetery but any cemetery, stop and reflect on what those people have done for you. Also, honor these souls by making sure others are respectful and not dumping litter or destroying the grounds. Someday hopefully someone will do the same for all of us.

Til next time …

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