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Future uncertain for historic Tamaqua Odd Fellows

The existence of one of the largest and most historic burial grounds in Schuylkill County is in jeopardy.

The future of the 155-year-old Odd Fellows Cemetery in west Tamaqua and Schuylkill Township is at a crossroads due to dwindling resources and lack of manpower.

As a result, the organization managing it is looking to divest.

“We cannot keep fighting a losing battle,” said Justin C. Bailey, secretary, Harmony Lodge, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, in a written appeal to the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership on Jan. 22.

The Odd Fellows group appoints a volunteer board of trustees, currently seven members, to maintain the vast 38-acre parcel, created Jan. 4, 1864.

The burial ground, called “City of the Dead,” is the site of more than 16,000 graves, or more than twice the population of the town.

It also contains 102 undocumented graves and more than 100 more resting sites inside a large trunk, representing a mass grave of unclaimed bodies from when Primitive Methodist Church moved its cemetery. Odd Fellows also holds an unknown number of graves buried before records were kept.

The public cemetery is special for many reasons. It was designed as one of only two Victorian garden cemeteries in the county, the other being the Charles Baber Cemetery in Pottsville.

In its heyday, ornate Odd Fellows Cemetery hosted picnics and Sunday walks, allowing families to spend leisure time among lavish stained-glass adorned mausoleums and richly carved monuments.

The cemetery became so popular that tickets were required to enter the premises.

Of the 38 acres, 26 acres are developed and meticulously laid out for public burials, anchored by towering Soldiers Circle Monument, erected in 1870 by the Abner Doubleday Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, and host to Civil War veterans’ graves and others.

The cemetery contains veterans’ graves of all American conflicts, including at least one grave of a veteran of the American Revolution.

But maintenance of the site has become a challenge, according to Bailey.

“The cost of mowing and insurance is continually rising and we’re getting less and less full burials here,” he said.

He also said board members have health issues and Harmony Lodge, representing the pool from which the fraternal group appoints its board, also is struggling.

“We are down to 25 members,” he said, noting that recent developments have reduced the number to four of those able to maintain the cemetery. And their availability is limited due to holding full-time jobs.

Tamaqua Harmony Lodge, at its peak, had more than 900 members and was the second largest IOOF lodge in Pennsylvania.

Bailey said the lodge is asking the community for help and suggested the Tamaqua Partnership would be an ideal fit. The lodge would be willing to assist as part of its commitment to “bury the dead.”

“We have a considerable perpetual care fund and investments to run the cemetery, but we need someone to manage it and take it over,” Bailey said.

Micah Gursky, Tamaqua Area Community Partnership executive director, said the partnership board is concerned about the issue. The cemetery, Gursky said, holds an important place in the community.

“Not only is it rich with history and family connections to our past, it is where our annual Memorial Day service is held.”

However, the partnership “is not in a position nor interested in taking ownership of the cemetery,” Gursky said. “We did offer to meet with them to perhaps give them some direction or guidance.”

In the meantime, members of the Odd Fellows group are being forced to make some difficult decisions, and one of Tamaqua’s most valuable assets hangs in the balance.

Those interested in offering help can call 570-668-2070.

With majestic mausoleums and impressive statuary and monuments, Tamaqua’s 1864 Odd Fellows Cemetery is a showpiece of American history. But the future of the Victorian garden burial ground is unclear due to dwindling resources and manpower. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Tamaqua’s City of the Dead was expanding at a fast pace when this aerial photo was captured in the 1930s. COURTESY TAMAQUA HARMONY LODGE #86