Grave interest brings many to cemetery tour



Graveyards are as much a part of the Halloween tradition as witches, monsters, and costumed kids going door to door shouting “trick or treat!”

So it was no surprise that hundreds of people showed up Saturday afternoon, two days before Halloween, for guided tours of the historic Oak Hill Cemetery.

Sponsored by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, the tours highlighted the graves of several prominent people from the city’s history who are buried there, as well as the architecture of their memorials and the overall landscape of the picturesque cemetery.

William Lawson, MVHS executive director, said the tours are offered annually on Halloween weekend, intentionally timed in conjunction with the city’s annual Zombie Crawl, which was Saturday evening.

Lawson said he and other volunteer tour guides got into the spirit a few years ago by sporting zombie costumes, but that didn’t sit well with some families of folks who are buried there.

“They later told us they thought it was disrespectful to do that,” Lawson said. “So we told them that we understood, and that’s why we play it straight now.”

Still, there were zombies among the throngs of visitors Saturday. Davene Parks, 30, and her mom, Joyce Parks, 68, took the tour in full zombie makeup because they planned to attend the Zombie Crawl later.

“We were the first in line to get our makeup done at the B&O [Station],” said Joyce, who said she’d always wanted to walk through Oak Hill Cemetery. “I always thought it would be really interesting, and it was. [Lawson] had a ton of really interesting information. He did a wonderful job.”

John Slanina, a volunteer tour guide, said that in 1840, when Youngstown was just a fledging village with a population of 650, the city’s burial grounds was at the corner of Wick Avenue and Wood Street. But a decade later, the population had increased to 2,800, and as the city’s growth encroached on that area, city officials were forced to look for a more suitable cemetery location.

That’s when the Oak Hill site was chosen, and burials began taking place there in 1853. Most of the people who’d been buried in the original Wick/Wood location were moved to Oak Hill, Lawson said.

The walking tour, which took about an hour, featured the burial sites of some of Youngstown’s most prominent early families, with such familiar last names as Wick, Powers, Rayen, Shehy, Hillman and Logan.

One of the stops featured the monument of David Tod, who was born in Youngstown in 1805 and was the only city resident ever to be elected governor of Ohio, serving one term during the Civil War.

Tod was so well respected that after his term expired, President Abraham Lincoln invited him to be a part of his cabinet, Lawson said. But Tod declined the offer and returned to Youngstown. There is an entire section of the cemetery for Tod and his family.

George D. Wick, founder of Republic Iron & Steel Company and Youngstown Sheet & Tube, also is honored with a monument at Oak Hill. He and his wife, Mary Hitchcock Wick, and their daughter, Mary Natalie Wick, were aboard the Titanic when it sank in the Atlantic Ocean in April 1912.

His wife and daughter survived, but Wick died at sea and his body was never recovered, Lawson said.

But not everyone buried at Oak Hill had such an illustrious history. Lawson said the cemetery also holds the remains of Charles Sterling, a drifter from Canada who was convicted in 1876 of killing a 14-year-old girl, was sentenced to death, and was executed on a gallows built in a courtyard area behind the county courthouse.

But, he said, even then, there were problems with botched executions. When Sterling was dropped to be hung, the noose loosened around his neck, causing his toes to touch the ground and the strangulation to take about a half-hour, which horrified the onlookers.

“That was the first time there was an execution in Mahoning County and it was also the last time,” Lawson said. From that point, executions were carried out by the state.

Sterling’s grave is unmarked and there is no record of it in the cemetery office, which happened intentionally because of the notoriety surrounding the case at the time.

Helen LoSasso, 81, of Boardman, listened with rapt attention throughout the tour.

“I like old cemeteries,” she said as she strolled along a grassy hillside. “I used to live near an old cemetery and I would spend hours just walking through it.

Tom and Joann Wilson of Warren said they heard about the tour on the radio.

“We thought it sounded like a good idea, and it turned out to be a beautiful day, so here we are,” said Tom, an attorney.

He said his brother-in-law, Tom Homilitas of Warren, is an old cemetery buff who has visited all the cemeteries in Trumbull County.

“I just think they’re intresting,” said Homilitas. “Sometimes when we travel, we’ll pull off into a cemetery just to walk around.”