Excerpted from The Akron Anthology available from Belt Publishing.
By Jennifer Conn
The dirt path to the Summit County potter’s field in Tallmadge, Ohio, no longer winds through a stretch of emerald woods heavy in summer with blackberries and tangled with thistle, brambles and vines. It doesn’t end at the back of the shimmering field that once masked the gated entrance to the cemetery. The path no longer feels like a portal to a secret. It’s my secret—although, in truth, it’s a secret shared with many long-dead souls.
For me, walking into that cool, green space always brought immediate comfort, like letting out breath held too long. Woods have always been home to me, but a woods concealing a forgotten cemetery was a gift to a teen who needed time and space to brood. I sometimes wrote while I was there, poetry, story ideas, characters’ names. There were never voices on the wind or visions from beyond the veil. But I felt a complete sense of belonging at the potter’s field; an understanding that I was always welcome there, perhaps by some energy pleased to be acknowledged. Leaving always saddened me. It made me feel strangely exposed.
That was during the decades the potter’s field was tucked away off the sprawling grounds of the Summit County Home in Tallmadge. The home was a majestic, classic revival-style structure we locals just called the “old folks home.”
In fairness, if you aren’t paying attention you likely don’t notice the three lone headstones.Today, the graveyard has become a kind of accidental roadside attraction. In 2008, the path through the woods to the gates was closed. Stripped of its secrecy, the cemetery entrance is now next to a trail built by the Summit Metro Parks, which cuts through the sheared remnants of what was once the field.
The potter’s field still stands open, silently inviting people to step in. But I’ve watched visitors pass by those gates without turn- ing their heads, as the cemetery is unmarked. It makes me ashamed that we seem to be losing touch with yet another feature of our human connectedness—honoring our dead.
In fairness, if you aren’t paying attention you likely don’t notice the three lone headstones. Two, standing back-to-back, are identical, inscribed, “John Keck, 1847–1935,” and “Constantina Plarinos, 1865– 1935.” I think of them as lovers who perished together, maybe of some old-time illness like scarlet fever or tuberculosis. The only other marker in the cemetery is a flat, bronze plaque inscribed, “Rest in Peace Unknown Skeletal Remains, Summit County Ohio.”
But even those who walk through the gates and realize they’re standing in an old burial site would not understand that more than 900 people who once called this area home are buried there. Our great-great-grandmas and grandpas along with distant cousins and drifters rest in that potter’s field.
And not that long ago, there was a way to know who was in each plot. Now the dead are nearly impossible to identify.
The Summit County Home
Growing up in Cuyahoga Falls, we told ghost stories about the old folks home. It was built nearly a century ago on Route 91, with the potter’s field in the adjacent woods. Everyone knew a cemetery was somewhere on the grounds, but in all the visits I made to it, I never saw another living soul.
I remember a few neighborhood kids claiming they’d snuck inside the building after dark and watched the ghost of a woman in a long, white gown gliding down the master staircase. To us, it had always just been there, spreading out darkly on its hill; a beautiful Goliath, forbidding, silent and ripe for a haunting.
In truth, the home operated from 1919 until 1970, and only stood crumbling and empty until about 1980. It was then demolished and replaced with a modern nursing and rehabilitation facility that caused it to fade from local legend.
But it wasn’t until 1988 that Summit County finally erected a tall marble monument at the site of the former old folks home, memorializing those buried in the potter’s field. The inscription explains the site was used from 1916 to 1948 to bury the indigent elderly and people who ended up at the home “due to unfortunate reasons caused by the Depression and difficult times.” The monument also tells of a millhouse on the grounds that burned down in 1981, destroying the records of everyone buried there, explaining why most the graves are unmarked.
But some locals suspect differently, as the list of those buried there surfaced more than once. And, other records show many of those buried in the potter’s field never lived at the home—they were reinterred from two other area cemeteries.
The Summit County Infirmary
When the Summit County Home was built in 1916, it replaced the Summit County Infirmary, a poorhouse and working farm built in 1864 in West Akron. Not an actual hospital, the Summit County Infirmary, located at West Exchange Street and Rose Boulevard, housed poor families with children; people considered insane or very ill; and the indigent elderly. It too housed a cemetery, known simply as the pauper’s cemetery.
When the infirmary closed in 1919, it ended decades of abuse and mistreatment of its residents, both living and dead. In Wicked Akron: Tales of Rumrunners, Mobsters and Other Rubber City Rogues, Kymberli Hagelberg wrote about the infirmary’s physician, Alvin K. Fouser, who was accused in the late 1800s of robbing the paupers’ graves and selling bodies for $5 to medical researchers. Fouser was never formally charged, but the accusation sparked further investigations. Other unsavory activities were uncovered, which led to the infirmary’s closure.
But the property it occupied was valuable. Past Pursuits, a publication of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, recounts that in July 1912, a buyer proposed to purchase the infirmary property with a single stipulation—that the pauper’s cemetery be removed.
The Beacon Journal reported the infirmary and grounds were sold in 1916, and in 1919, all living residents were moved to the new Summit County Home. No mention was made of the 209 bodies in the infirmary’s pauper’s cemetery. They were believed to have been moved to the Summit County Home, but many likely were not. In 2005, construction crews working near the West Akron Infirmary site were told to be on the lookout for human remains.
Cemetery records lost—and found
When I first became interested in writing about the potter’s field, I met local historian Marilyn Kovatch, a charter member of the Summit County Genealogical Society who twice served as chapter president. She was passionate about genealogy and the area’s history, and she clearly appreciated my interest, opening her archives and introducing me to locals with first-hand information. Mrs. Kovatch shared everything she knew about the home and the potter’s field, including meticulously organized news clippings, records, and resident accounts.
Mrs. Kovatch…was indeed a force for lost souls. It was her calling.One article from The Beacon Journal had been handled so often the date was illegible. It quoted a man working in Akron in 1982 under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act pro- gram who said his crew had found a copy of the potter’s field burial records downtown in the old Akron Armory when it was being torn down. He said his supervisors instructed the crew to not only throw away the records but to also remove and throw away the numbered porcelain markers from the graves that coincided with them.
In destroying the numbered markers, there would never again be a way to identify the bodies in any of the graves at the burial site. I remember asking Mrs. Kovatch why workers would have been told to do such a thing. Grave robbery, she had answered. So someone could steal the few valuables—wedding rings and gold teeth— those poor people had left in the world. It was not uncommon, she said, with older, forgotten cemeteries.
I was astonished. I still cannot understand how anyone could perform such an act without fear of karma smiting their asses or, at the very least, of their own conscience eventually driving them mad.
Not long after that article was published, a former employee of the Summit County Welfare office, who wished to remain anonymous, contacted Mrs. Kovatch with a similar story. The woman said she had found a copy of the same burial records twenty-five years earlier in a wastebasket in a downtown Akron office, but she had kept them. Mrs. Kovatch knew as soon as she saw the documents they were the burial records from the potter’s field. When Mrs. Kovatch handed the records to me to copy, it felt like I’d been given a treasure map.
Hand-written in ledger form, the records provide the deceased’s name and age if known, as well as the grave and permit number—the numbers corresponding to the markers thrown away by the federal worker’s crew. e records also list the undertaker’s name and some- times remarks, including any unusual information surrounding the person’s death. I pored over the records for weeks, examining the neat script, imagining the subjects’ faces and wishing them peace.
Some of the homeless or possibly drifters are listed this way: “unknown man, March 10, 1917, shot on the high level bridge;” “unknown man, March 10, 1917, shot on the high level bridge;” “unknown man, September 21, 1920, bullet hole in chest;” and “unknown man, July 27, 1917, found in river, Falls.” Nicknames also were noted, including “Bumblebee” and “Dog Face.” Sometimes the notations are curious, such as “Jim Douglas, November 3, 1925, buried, removed same day.” One notable remark is found under the listing of John Kisey, buried October 31, 1919: “First body buried in the new cemetery, rained all day.”
Over the years, Mrs. Kovatch’s information has drawn me back, again and again, to the potter’s field and to further research. I realize now how much the inscription on the monument must have troubled her. There might have been a fire, but the records were not destroyed in it. But without the porcelain grave markers, the records may be impossible to match with the gravesites.
I recently tried to contact Mrs. Kovatch to share new information I’d found, but was saddened to learn she died in 1999. An Akron Beacon Journal obituary praised her work and quoted genealogical society member Frances Musson saying, “She was a marvelous genealogist. She worked so hard on getting the cemeteries recorded and getting the deaths and all the different transactions recorded, from the courthouse to anyplace she could find them.”
She was indeed a force for lost souls. It was her calling.
Four Pines Cemetery
Among the reasons genealogists like Mrs. Kovatch preserve historic records is because cemeteries too often feel like Brothers Grimm tales. They can take people seeking lost relatives on a difficult and distressing journey.
The potter’s field is still dear to me, but I don’t go as often as I used to.For those buried in the potter’s field, the plot thickens. Prior to the opening of the Summit County site, and possibly after the Summit County Infirmary closed, there was once another cemetery in Tallmadge, not far, as the crow flies, from the existing potter’s field. This older burial ground was marked by four pine trees standing near the Howe Road entrance to the Summit County Fairgrounds. One of the pines still stands.
Older Tallmadge residents believe this cemetery was used as an interim burial ground while the Summit County Home was under construction. Once the home was complete, the bodies from the “four pines” cemetery were moved to the potter’s field.
But, according to an old-timer I spoke with in the ‘90s, the pine-marked cemetery might have been even older. He said that as a child in the early 1900s, he watched from his family’s farmhouse window as morticians drove a horse and wagon up the narrow dirt cow path that is now Howe Road, in harsh weather, to dump the bodies, sans caskets, off the side of the wagon rather than make the laborious trip up the hill in the mud or snow to the cemetery. The morticians, paid $5 a body and $5 a casket to carry the deceased to the burial ground, were thought to have kept the $5.
The old man’s tale bears truth. In 1981, a highway project to widen Howe Road from two lanes to four unearthed human bones near the fairgrounds. A Tallmadge Express story reported the bones were likely those of Summit County Home residents who had been buried in the obscure little cemetery near the fairgrounds. An Ohio Department of Transportation project map shows a cemetery in that vicinity.
Clearly, like those left behind at the Summit County Infirmary, not all the remains at the obscure pine-marked cemetery made it to the potter’s field.
The bones released during the Howe Road project were later reinterred at the potter’s field. Memorialized only as “Unknown Skeletal Remains,” they joined the hundreds of other area residents who became anonymous in death through no fault of their own.
Potter’s Field Records Preserved
The last time I visited the potter’s field, limp, sun-bleached flags honoring the cemetery’s veterans hung at the entrance. The grounds seemed more uneven, patterned with a rugged grid of roots from the old trees that keep the place in perpetual shade. Poison ivy climbed everywhere.
The cemetery remains obscure because the huge marble monument at the site of the Summit County Home was never moved to the new entrance in the Tallmadge Metro Park. The monument stands, fully concealed by the woods, next to a parking lot for the new facility that’s at the site of the old home.
The monument is as untethered to its purpose as, in the end, the potter’s field residents are to their identities, and their loved ones.
But even though time and human failings have done much to diminish the old cemetery, there is some satisfaction in knowing that even a few of the 900 people buried in obscurity in the Summit County potter’s field might yet be found by their loved ones. Mrs. Kovatch saw to it that those lost-and-then-found hand-written burial records, titled “Summit County Ohio Infirmary & Miscellaneous Records 1916 to 1952,” were given to the Special Collections Division of the Akron-Summit County Public Library for safekeeping, along with the book Lest We Forget, which provides Summit County burial records and other information gathered by the Summit County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society to help families find their lost loved ones.
The potter’s field is still dear to me, but I don’t go as often as I used to. I’m troubled by the unending obscurity the cemetery endures, despite its new position as part of the Metro Parks. Perhaps one day the county will move that massive monument to the entrance, to acknowledge it and focus the community’s attention on all those souls. Because even a tale that’s mostly fiction is better than no tale at all.
Photos courtesy Jennifer Conn.
Jennifer Conn is an Akron-based freelance reporter and writer. She also teaches English composition and English as a Second Language courses at Kent State University and the University of Akron. Jennifer’s interest in cemeteries is an extension of her passion for honoring our historical sites and structures through storytelling.