GRELTON, Ohio - W.E. Nichols was a rich man. He lived frugally. When he died, he took his money with him.
“In a way, his money is here with him, in the cemetery,'' said Charles Conn, president of the cemetery association.
Mr. Nichols, a reclusive Henry County bachelor, lived close to Grelton Cemetery. When he died in 1963, at age 84, he instructed that part of his fortune be used to beautify the graveyard.
His wishes were carried out.
Money from Mr. Nichols' bequest still regularly pours into the Grelton Cemetery - a picturesque little graveyard with fountains, gazebo, manicured lawns, and bridges.
“There's not another cemetery like it in the county. I think maybe not another like it in the country,” said Jackie Sautter, a former Henry County Historical Society board member.
The trustees, who wouldn't disclose how many shares he bequeathed, say the Chevron stock, which trades around $87 a share, is worth $3.1 million.
At one time, the broken-down graveyard needed improvements.
“It was a very, very poor cemetery. There were only a handful of dollars for upkeep, and that came from people assessed $9 a year for graves,” Mrs. Sautter said.
The cemetery, situated in 42 hilly and partly wooded acres, is just down the road from where Mr. Nichols was born.
“He was born just up on the hill there,” said Mr. Conn, pointing southward. “He ran away from home at age 15 to fight in the Spanish-American War.”
The army learned the teenager was underage and sent him home. “But he didn't go home. He went to Louisiana,” Mr. Conn said.
He got a job with Gulf Oil, which then paid some employees partly in stock, Mr. Conn said.
“Most men drank up their paychecks. When they were broke, he would buy their stock, so they could go back to the bar,” Mr. Conn said.
When he finally returned to Henry County, W.E. Nichols was a rich man.
Why did the straight-laced lifelong bachelor decide to pour money into a country cemetery?
“Darned if we know,” said Mr. Conn, 80, who lives across County Road 7 from the graveyard. “But we're glad he did.”
Mrs. Sautter thinks it was because Mr. Nichols' parents were at rest there. “I heard him say, `That little cemetery is where my loved ones are and where I'm gonna be,'” she said.
Mr. Nichols' will instructed that stock be held until a niece died. Then the cemetery association began receiving the earnings.
With money from the bequest, the association turned the run-down cemetery into a rural showplace. A gravel drive was paved with asphalt. Crooked and fallen grave monuments, some more than a century old, were straightened.
Two stylish stone bridges were constructed over the branch of Little Turkeyfoot Creek that gurgles along one side of the graveyard. The creek was re-routed.
A fashionable gazebo and pool were built to grace a hilltop. Four fountains spray into the pool. A poolside promenade walk is adorned with five city-style street lamps - a stylish touch in a patch of farmland.
A 30-foot flagpole was erected.
“Think about that, here we are out in the boonies and here is this beautiful American flag lighted up at night,” Mrs. Sautter said.
The bordering forest was cleaned out and walking paths made. Shade trees were labeled and bluebird houses hung in branches.
A tile system was dug to drain the ground. Trustees bought additional acres to the west.
The lawns are professionally clipped and manicured. Some gravestones are surrounded with plants.
How much money is available for the cemetery?
“Substantial,'' is all Mr. Conn would say.
Mrs. Sautter remembers that her late father, Virgil Howe, trustees president at the time, was stunned at the amount.
“At the probate court, they teased him that he could pave the cemetery streets with gold and put pearly gates at the entrance,” she said.
It was not surprising to those who knew Mr. Nichols that he had money when he passed on. He did not drink, he did not gamble, and he never married.
Did he live like wealthy man?
“Oh, gosh, no. He was frugal, to say the least,” Mr. Conn said. “He drove in our place one day in his old Ford car. One door handle was missing so he wired the door shut. My dad said, `Ed, you don't have any way to open that door. Nobody could get in and ride with you.'''
“Mr. Nichols replied: `I don't ask anybody to ride with me!'”
Mrs. Sautter recalls Mr. Nichols as “a character.''
“He was a loner and when he died, everybody was stunned that he had money. From all appearances, he didn't have a dime. He never dressed up. He wore tattered clothes. He drove that beat-up old car with the door wired shut and there always was tobacco juice on the side of the car, where he spit.”
In 1990, the association built a memorial to honor both county war veterans and Mr. Nichols. The monument was paid for with Nichols money, of course. The stone is engraved:
In Recognition of
For His Thoughtful Bequest
Toward the Improvement
And Beautification of the
Etched into stone is a rather stern portrait of Mr. Nichols. It was made from the only known photograph of him. The original, full-length photo hangs in the cemetery office.
As for W. Edward Nichols himself, he lies at the edge of the woods, under a large sycamore tree. He was buried next to his parents, Amos (1857-1915) and Sarah (1856-1940).
His granite marker is adorned with carved rosettes. It is large but not as ornate or towering as other family monuments.
The soil holding the remains of the Emery and Jackson families, early Henry County settlers, is topped with large monuments noting that Nathaniel Emery died in 1863 and Noah Jackson, who donated the land, breathed his last in 1887.
Most of the departed at Grelton Cemetery rest in the shade. Large, old walnut, silver maple, red cedar, and white cedar trees form canopies over gravesites.
The cemetery itself has lots of room to grow, Mr. Conn says. “We only bury seven or eight people a year. At that rate, we have enough room for 700 years.”