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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2007

Bicyclists to visit old haunts in Lucas County

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
From left, neighbors Lee Zelina, Sharon Flory, and Emma Flory inspect tombstones in the Winslow Cemetery, a small plot that's located between their homes in Waterville Township. From left, neighbors Lee Zelina, Sharon Flory, and Emma Flory inspect tombstones in the Winslow Cemetery, a small plot that's located between their homes in Waterville Township.
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Like many good neighbors, the Flory and Zelina families on Winslow Road in Waterville Township share weekend afternoons and swimming pool privileges, and their children band together to play fort.

And in their front yards, they share a cemetery.

Not the sprawling out-near-the-country type with winding roads, iron gates, and orderly rows of headstones. The one dividing their properties is a tiny hillside plot shrouded by oak and pine trees and enclosed with a wood fence.

Marked as Winslow Cemetery, the land is the old family burial ground of farmer Martin Winslow and his descendants. It's also the backdrop for young Eric and Evan Zelina's epic toy gun battles.

And it's one of a dozen of Lucas County's smallest cemeteries that are on this weekend's 30th annual Tombstone Bicycle Tour. It starts and finishes at Secor Metropark near Wolfinger Cemetery, the resting place for many of Richfield Township's earliest settlers, and typically draws more than 100 riders.

After Martin Winslow's death in 1848 at age 54, the plot became the resting place for nearly two dozen of his descendants along with their 19th-century tombstones, many of them now cracked, broken, or worn to illegibility. The last headstone is for Sylvan Westfall, who died in 1959.

"It's a good conversation piece," Sharon Flory said. "The cemetery never bothered me. But it's funny - my husband hates it."

Tucked away in leafy subdivisions or sometimes perched at busy intersections, Lucas County's few remaining small cemeteries are a visible link to the region's early pioneer history, when settlers often buried their dead on or near the family homestead.

Plots believed to have once stood alone in farmers' fields have with time and development become neighborhood fixtures. But contrary to age-old conventions of the spooky tale, these quaint cemeteries don't necessarily haunt their neighbors with ghastly premonitions or sounds of rattling chains.

Some, like Lee Zelina, even think they're kind of cute.

"It's not very intimidating because it's so small," said the mother of two, who first lived in her Winslow Road house as a teenager in the late 1970s before moving in with her own family last winter. "It is kind of weird to have one, but it's been here for so long we don't even think about it anymore - except on Halloween."

The same goes for Jennifer Zieman, whose family moved a year and a half ago into a house next door to the Mennonite Cemetery on Finzel Road, also in Waterville Township, where well-weathered stones list birth dates from the 18th century.

"It doesn't bother us at all," Mrs. Zieman said. "I thought it would be kind of creepy, but it's absolutely not."

Lucas County is still home to more than a dozen of these smaller grave sites, although old records show that there were once scores of them.

Some just disappeared. Others, such as the former Holloway family cemetery on Garden Road, were moved into nearby larger plots like Springfield Township Cemetery.

Pouring over dusty maps is one approach to hunting down these last remaining burial grounds.

Yet for in-shape history buffs who don't mind pedaling 36 miles on a Sunday afternoon, many of those sites can be seen in one fell swoop on the Tombstone Bicycle Tour.

Begun by the former West Toledo resident Dick Hayes as a Halloween season novelty, the tour has been organized for the past 15 years by Tom and Nancy Verner of Waterville.

Mr. Verner, 64, said that through his research he was able to expand the number of cemetery stops on the tour to 13 or more. But curiosity can sometimes outpace physical endurance.

"There were some great cemeteries, but they add too many miles to the ride," Mrs. Verner said.

Fittingly, the bike route passes along Cemetery Road in Whitehouse, which is home to two grave sites: Whitehouse Cemetery and the smaller Rupp Cemetery at the corner of busy Weckerly Road.

Like other small 19th-century grave sites in the county, the Rupp Cemetery is filled with markers in various shapes, sizes, and stages of decay. While a towering stone obelisk to Isaac Obee (dead at 22 in 1870) seems fit for another hundred years, other monuments are so worn that they are little more than blank slabs of crooked stone.

Margaret Waldeck, 41, and her family live catty-corner to the cemetery. Far from being spooked by the proximity, Mrs. Waldeck said that they considered the grave site as just another feature of the neighborhood when they built their house 10 years ago.

"There's a gas station, there's a grocery store, and there's a cemetery - it was part of the real estate," she said.

The Winslow, Rupp, and other small cemeteries on the bike tour - including the very tiny Bird Cemetery in the Oak Openings area - are no longer owned by families but rather by townships, which under state law can be responsible for maintaining them.

Katie Karrick, founder and president of the Ohio Cemetery Preservation Association, said it was common for townships to acquire ownership of old family and church burial lands after the relatives moved away or died out, or the church disbanded. The names of these cemeteries are of historical significance because the people buried there are often the area's original farmers, she said.

Such was the case with the Winslow Cemetery. According to a newspaper account, when the property was sold by Martin Winslow's descendants the deed excluded the family's grave plot, which is now owned by Waterville Township.

"Part of the fabric of Ohio history is driving along a road and seeing a burial site, said Ms. Karrick, who lives in the Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst. "It tells me that somebody in this area was passing through and decided this was a wonderful place to stay."

Larger community cemeteries opened as Ohio's demographics changed throughout the 1800s, and the tradition of burying loved ones on the homestead went the way of the horse-drawn carriage. While it's not unheard of today for people to keep private burials on their property, it's a practice that is hard to quantify because family cemeteries do not have to register with the state.

"We do occasionally still hear of people doing that, especially in more rural areas," said Eric Watne, president of the Ohio Association of Cemetery Superintendents and Officials.

Ms. Karrick publishes the quarterly newsletter, Tomb With A View, which is also a guide to many lesser-known grave sites throughout the country. It celebrates cemeteries as "outdoor museums" as well as repositories of artistic and horticultural wonders.

"When I go on vacation, it's always to go to a cemetery," Ms. Karrick said. "And if I see anything else while on the trip, that's icing on the cake."

Contact JC Reindl at: jreindl@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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