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Saving a treasured cemetery

Published May 26. 2012 09:02AM

In 1854, the Panther Valley was a bustling region growing with the support of the economy created by King Coal.

It was an area on its way up in the world. Churches were being established, taverns were being designed and built and the fledgling communities were well on their way.

Besides the happy places, there was also a need for those whose lives were coming to a close. In the mid 1800's, the industrialists building and running the mines realized that most of the valley was full of coal and they needed places to bury the departed.

It was around this time that a public cemetery was established on the eastern edge of the community out at the end of White Street. This cemetery whose initial name, I'm not familiar with was more of a public cemetery and open to anyone who wanted to be buried in it.

Soon the Civil War tore the country apart and in those four long bloody years over 600,000 Americans on both sides were injured and killed. Upon the return of those veterans to the coal regions at the conclusion of the war, they re-established themselves in their communities again.

As a way to provide a common bond for these men and to share the stresses and burdens they would face as a result of the war as well as a way to remember and remind people about the purpose of the Civil War, these veterans formed the Grand Army of the Republic.

In the Panther Valley area, the Conner Post 177 of the GAR formed in 1869 and in the late 1880s they assumed control of the public cemetery naming it the GAR Cemetery. This cemetery continued to the present to be a public cemetery not affiliated with a particular church.

As a GAR cemetery, my friends in the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, the heirs to the GAR, told me one time that there was to be provisions for indigent veterans to be buried here free of charge so that no veteran of the war would be forgotten.

Time passed and eventually a private group assumed control of the cemetery as the GAR veterans died out and the cemetery continued through the twentieth century as a public cemetery until it ran into some tough times and poor decision making in the 1970s and 80s.

The cemetery languished for several years until the Summit Hill Historical Society was approached in 2007 to see if they knew anyone who would be interested in assuming control from the owner who was very ill. I was the president of the society at the time and I knew there were several people over the years who expressed interest in saving the cemetery.

It was in the fall of that year that I met with the lawyer along with my two friends David Hiles and Louis Vermillion. We discussed the legalities of taking control of the cemetery and all of the involved issues and we decided it needed to be done. We made a list of volunteer prospects and began approaching them and six agreed to join the three of us in this journey, Tom Parambo, Carol Miller, Craig Walters, Lee Mantz, Earl Henninger and Penny Shelton. Later Tom Phillips would join our effort as a board member as well.

By the end of 2008, we assumed control of the property and all the issues that came with it including a very small treasury and some large bills. One year later, thanks to the generosity of over 100 benefactors and lot owners, we were able to grow our treasury to a level that would allow us to continue to maintain the grounds each season.

The Summit Hill Historical Society also is owed a debt of thanks for their help in getting us started monetarily as well. Since we took over at the start of the 2009 season (the fall of 2008) we have successfully maintained the property continuously.

In 2010, we approached then State Representative Keith McCall who enthusiastically wanted to assist us and through his office we were able to apply for a grant for $10,000 the purpose of which is to improve the cemetery. We were awarded that grant last year as well as a $5,000 grant from the Summit Hill Community Improvement Organization to improve the building which we did in 2011.

Thanks to all of you who have taken an interest in the cemetery through your time, talent and finances as well as the blessings we received in funding we were able to begin our expansion of the cemetery to provide new lots and improve the upper road.

Our first capital improvement project began with that funding this year as well as your contributions. We have created a new section of the cemetery sixty six by thirty five feet at the eastern end for new sales. We are planning to install a columbarium for cremation burials in the near future.

And we owe all of this to each and every one of you who have generously supported us.

Most importantly thanks to the hard work of Joe Nihen, Carol Miller and the board in conjunction with people and council of Lansford, the plaque naming our cemetery's founders was donated to us with the pledge that we would provide a suitable home for it.

This morning at 10 a.m. we will formally dedicate the GAR Memorial in memory of the veterans of the Civil War who sacrificed for their country and the veterans who dedicated themselves to provide a final resting place for those men.

We will also rededicate the newly seeded section so that it can continue to provide a public resting place for those who want to be buried in this historic cemetery.

We hope you can all join us this morning for this short but meaningful service and have a safe holiday weekend.

Til next time…

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