Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Spring at Spring Hill

English Township’s Spring Hill Cemetery is a lovely place worth finding --- if you can. Although impeccably maintained by the Lucas County Pioneer Cemetery Commission, it has become more elusive as the years have passed; you need to know the territory now to get there.

When I was a kid, we turned off the Newbern road onto the Spring Hill lane under a lacy arch with the cemetery name on it. That has long since been taken down and now there’s no indication of what’s at the end of this stub of a road, easily missed. The cemetery, tucked into woods, is invisible.

I drove out Monday morning to take photos of Byram family tombstones that I wanted to add to an earlier post about Burns “Doc” Byram, a much-loved physician in his adopted hometown of Marengo and a pilot who died in 1978 near Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, when the P-51 fighter he was bringing home from Guatemala crashed. Doc, an only child, is buried here with his parents, Burns M. Sr. and Gladys (Scales) Byram, in sight of the farm where they lived. Robert Hullihan’s lovely tribute to Doc Byram is here.

The cemetery itself was founded rather late by Lucas County standards --- not until 1877 when members of the First Presbyterian Church of English Township, organized in 1869, chose the site to serve the congregation and the neighborhood. Many of the organizers --- Duncan Breckinridge, Isaac Cain, C.R. Cowan, Thomas M. Dunshee and G. T. Mayes --- are buried here now with their families.

The setting, about half a mile west of where the church once stood on the main road, is lovely and old maps suggest Spring Hill always has been a little isolated on a site chosen more perhaps for atmosphere than convenience.

First Presbyterian sometimes was called Cain Church, after the Cain family, so the cemetery also has been known as the Cain Church Cemetery or just Cain Cemetery. The old white frame church building, slightly more elaborate than most of its rural counterparts in Lucas County, was taken down during the early 1930s.


Although this is one of Lucas County’s smallest cemeteries with perhaps only 50 graves, a row of six tombstones that bear chillingly similar death dates speak about one of our greatest family tragedies --- the December 1916 deaths in a Cheyenne, Wyoming, hotel fire of Roy A. and Ethel White and their four young sons, R. Francis, Donald, Guy and Hubert.

The Whites, who lived in California, had returned to English Township in late October 1916 for the funeral of Roy’s Father, John A. White, also buried at Spring Hill. Returning to California by train just before Christmas, the family stopped in Cheyenne on 17 December to visit Fern Patterson, a sister of Ethel White, and checked into the Inter-Ocean Hotel downtown, a three-story brick building dating from the 1870s that was similar to Chariton’s Bates House and in the midst of a remodeling project.

Faulty wiring was blamed for the blaze that broke out about an hour after their arrival, trapping the White family on the third floor. Ethel and her three older sons perished in the flames. Firefighters rescued 9-month-old Hubert, but he died the next day. Roy jumped from a third-floor window and died when he fell into a tangle of live electrical wires.

Standing here now, more than 90 years later with spring sun filtering through the trees that shade the family’s graves and birdsong the only sound, it’s difficult to comprehend such sorrow.


Several bodies have been removed over the years from Spring Hill and reburied elsewhere for reasons now obscure, although perhaps maintenance lagged once the congregation disbanded or this pretty place came to seem too remote for their survivors’ taste.

John West, who was my great-uncle, and his son, Walter, were among those moved to the Chariton Cemetery. John, who married my grandmother’s half-sister, Eva Prentiss, in 1880, died in his early 50s on 17 November 1906 of tuberculosis. John and Eva and their seven children lived in the neighborhood and were members of the Cain Church, so burial took place at Spring Hill.

Twelve years later, on Jan. 28, 1918, Walter’s boyhood friend and neighbor, Raymond Cain, became the first Lucas Countyan to die in service during World War I --- of blood poisoning while stationed at Fort Logan, Colorado.

Raymond was buried at Spring Hill after services at Cain Church on Friday, Feb.1, and that afternoon Walter, stationed at Camp Pike, Arkansas, died of scarlet fever and pneumonia, the county’s second war-related death. His funeral took place at Cain Church the following Tuesday and he was buried, too, at Spring Hill.

Both now rest with their parents in Chariton, Raymond’s tombstone almost obscured by a massive cottonwood; Walter’s, shaded by oak.

Antibiotics as much as body armor now keep our soldiers safer than they might otherwise be, but such things were not available then --- and as many if not more died of disease rather than wounds during our various wars.

The easiest way to find Spring Hill from Chariton is to drive about two and a half miles north out of town on Highway 14 and turn left (north) onto the gravel road to Newbern as you near the bottom of Whitebreast Hill but before crossing the creek. Follow this road about five miles north as it crosses the Whitebrest bottom then climbs to meander along the ridge. You’re liable to drive right by the lane on the south side of the road leading back to Spring Hill, marked as it is only with a standard sign that reads, “Dead End.”

To find the cemetery from Newbern, well first you have to find Newbern --- and since there’s not much left there these days that’s a challenge in itself.

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