BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Rory Hartbarger is watching for buds to appear on a giant oak tree that shades the area where the community will gather for a Memorial Day ceremony at Wakeman Cemetery.
“If it doesn’t bud out, we’ll have to take it down,” said Hartbarger, who is the sexton for the Fallen Timbers Union Cemetery District (FTUCD). He’s watched over the past few months as a hollowed-out area has become stuffed with items that an industrious squirrel has dragged in from nearby graves – including a University of Michigan flag.
Hartbarger and assistant sexton/maintenance worker Troy DeWitt have seen it all: deer giving birth to triplets and twins, and owls, foxes and squirrels. It’s the people they care for the most, however, as they help families through the burial and memorial process in a manner that is respectful and empathetic.
“When someone has lost their loved one, they often are asked to make decisions while they’re grieving. We try to help them through that,” Hartbarger said. “We have laid these people to rest and it’s so peaceful here. It’s a place where people come to remember a loved one and reflect.”
The FTUCD, formed in 2019, oversees the care of five cemeteries, including the 17-acre Wakeman and the 9-acre Whitehouse Cemetery, along with three closed burial grounds: the 1852 Mennonite Cemetery, the tiny Winslow Cemetery and Rupp Cemetery, which has the remains of Whitehouse’s earliest residents.
On May 8, representatives from Waterville, Whitehouse and Waterville Township met with the district’s board of trustees as part of its annual meeting to go over the budget and set the inside millage rate, which will remain at .46 mills. For the owner of a $300,000 home, that equates to about $138 a year.
While families pay $800 to $1,000 for a plot of land, it’s the community investment that covers the cost of maintaining the properties and preserving history for current and future generations, Hartbarger said.
Sitting inside the FTUCD headquarters at Wakeman Cemetery last week, Hartbarger, DeWitt and Waterville Township trustee Kim Anderson gingerly picked up plot maps for three of the cemeteries. On the table were books dating back to the 1800s, filled with cemetery records – interment journals and an alphabetical log of the names of the deceased, the plot owners, dates and locations of the burials.
Recently, Anderson obtained a $4,600 grant from the Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board that will help preserve and digitize the maps, burial cards and record books. As a matching grant, the district is expected to come up with up to $5,000 as well, but that could be in the form of volunteer hours, which Anderson expects to provide herself.
“At this point, I’m the volunteer, because too many cooks spoil the broth. Once all the records are organized, we can bring in other people who can scan and keep the records up,” she said.
The funds will allow the district to purchase the equipment to scan and store the records, as well as a fireproof safe to store materials and an air conditioning unit to keep the former township maintenance garage at an even temperature.
“The grant will allow us to preserve all this,” Anderson said, pointing to the historical items. “The more we handle these things, the greater the potential for destruction. We want to digitize it and give everyone access to it. That way, if someone wants to do research on their ancestry, it’s all there.”
Each page will be scanned and available for access by anyone doing genealogical or historical research. It will also preserve the records, many of which are beginning to deteriorate from handling.
During his three years as sexton, Hartbarger has gained an appreciation for those who have served in the position before him for their diligence in recording information, usually in cursive handwriting. The Waterville Historical Society has digitized information from the gravesites and the Lucas County Cemeteries Hist-orical Association is double checking records with historical information as well. All of that research and recording is shared, so that the records are as accurate as possible, Hartbarger said.
Walking near the entryway to Wakeman Cemetery, Hartbarger noted that history often gets lost. Pointing to a gravestone that was recently uncovered from several inches of sod, he explained that many times markers are worn by weather or unrecorded. He also recently found a 1982 letter from researcher Midge Campbell, showing that Wakeman was started as a “free” cemetery – or potter’s field – where the Irish settlers who dug the Erie Canal between 1835 and 1843 were buried.
In the fall, a team from Bowling Green State University will take photos of gravestones and volunteer to clean some of the stones with a soft brush and dish liquid to eliminate moss and stains that make them unreadable. Last year, Maumee Valley Monument volunteered to clear away the John Pray monument to turn it from dark gray back to its original white.
The FTUCD has made improvements in the past four years, including re-paving the drives at Wakeman and Whitehouse, putting a new roof on and shoring up the foundation of the maintenance building, replacing a pumphouse roof and extending the waterline at Whitehouse to service a newer area. New plats are underway at both cemeteries to accommodate future burials, and contractors are treating the lawns to build a better turf that will keep weeds out. Thousands of dollars have been invested in taking down dead trees and trimming others. Earlier this year, clerk/treasurer Tiffany Bachman obtained a $2,500 grant for tree maintenance and is applying for other grants.
“We’re being proactive instead of reactive,” Hartbarger said.
When visitors come to the cemeteries on Memorial Day or any day of the year to walk, bike or sit and reflect, it’s his hope that the beautiful grounds will bring tranquility.