The Old Cemetery in Rootstown, pictured in 2022. Jeremy Brown/The Portager

Rootstown plans major improvements at the Old Cemetery, thanks to state grant

Rootstown’s Old Cemetery, sometimes called Ye Olde Cemetery, is in for some changes thanks to a $60,000 gift engineered by State Rep. Gail Pavliga.

Established in 1809 shortly after Rootstown became a township, the cemetery closed about 50 years later. It languished, deteriorating year after year until stones toppled, became unreadable or vanished altogether — if they ever had been in place at all. Cemetery records disappeared, having been burned in a mid-1800s fire at the sexton’s home.

In mid-May 2022, Old Cemetery Restoration Committee member Don Boyle, a tireless volunteer at the cemetery and secretary for the Rootstown Historical Society, was working in the cemetery when he struck up a chance conversation with a woman who turned out to be Pavliga.

Another chance conversation had occurred just prior to that one: Pavliga happened to be at Hometown Bank and spoke with Marilyn Sessions, the bank’s public relations and marketing officer. Sessions had helped the township’s Old Cemetery Restoration Committee with past fundraising efforts.

Curiosity piqued, Pavliga said she decided to visit the cemetery.

“I thought [Boyle] worked for the township,” she said. “He just started talking to me, and I became more and more fascinated, not only with the history but with his enthusiasm and knowledge about the cemetery and wanting to preserve it not only for our history and for the future, but just as a way to get people to come to Rootstown and to see this and make it an interesting place.”

Pavliga stayed over an hour, listening as Boyle spoke about the township’s early settlers, war heroes and others who are buried at Ye Olde Cemetery. Boyle said he took their conversation for what it was and continued working. 

Yet another chance connection: North Carolina resident Carolyn Underwood happens to have four ancestors who are buried in the cemetery. She “found” them, and in 2001 she decided to join the Rootstown Historical Society, which was just starting to consider restoring the cemetery. A trained genealogist, Underwood helped form the cemetery committee with Boyle, Terri Fassnacht, and a handful of other area residents.

That led to her contacting Pavliga in late 2022, who encouraged her to submit a funding proposal. Underwood completed the paperwork and forwarded it to Pavliga in January 2023. Pavliga used her position on the House Finance Committee, which decides what money goes to what organizations, to put in a budget request for the funding.

“This is the beauty of this job,” Pavliga said. “You get to make such a difference for the people of this community who are so excited to have this cemetery project. That enthusiasm just really rubbed off on me.”

Pavliga presented the check, which is being dispersed in quarterly payments for two years, to the committee during its Aug. 8 meeting.

“She’s a very passionate person. She wants to do everything she can for the people she represents,” Boyle said. “To have someone come through like Mrs. Pavliga did, it’s inspirational.”

Underwood said the money will cover Sentry Mapping’s ground-penetrating radar work, headstone restoration, landscaping, fencing with a gate, reestablishing gravel lanes that may have been there in days gone by, and “probably doing a large memorial for the people who have died in Rootstown but we don’t know where they’re buried.”

The funds will also cover directional signs for the hard-to-find graveyard, which Underwood said she is working to designate as a historical landmark.

The ground-penetrating radar work has already been completed and revealed 117 unmarked graves, Underwood said. Each spot is marked with a flag, but Underwood plans to replace those temporary fixtures with more permanent markers.

“I don’t know that we will be putting up headstones — maybe a remembrance marker with the 117 names. There will also be small markers on the ground, but they would not have specific names on them,” Underwood said.

The committee also plans to erect an informational kiosk so visitors can find specific burial spots. The kiosk will include QR codes so “you can scan it with your phone and look up information right there in the cemetery,” Underwood said.

Each bio will “essentially give a history of their life, their wives, their children, what they did for a living, any contributions they made, what their military service was, everything,” she said.

Underwood has done all the genealogy herself, compiling a list of 150 internees. They’re listed in her book “Pioneers of the Old Cemetery,” available through the Rootstown Historical Society. The book details the lives of people who lived in Rootstown in the early 1800s and includes all the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War veterans, Underwood said.

The historical society hopes to eventually give school tours of the cemetery, making the old burial ground a living, breathing place, she said.

Boyle said that he, Historical Society President John Fassnacht and Dave McIntrye Sr. will continue their work: erecting fallen stones, cleaning old headstones so at least some of them are readable, building new bases for stones, and repairing stones that have fallen into pieces.

Boyle recounted how, as a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, he secured funding for three new headstones for veterans, and built new bases and erected the markers.

“For such a small cemetery, there’s 21 veterans there: nine Revolutionary War, 10 War of 1812 and two Civil War,” he said.

Rootstown’s Old Cemetery is visible across Tallmadge Road from Homeland Cemetery, but it can only be accessed via the north dead end of West Drive.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.