The story has already been related of my Sunday sojourns to the Oak Grove Church cemetery with my great Uncle Perce. Cemeteries often hold a morbid fascination for most people and stories abound that run the gambit from spooky to eerie to downright terrifying. As a boy, I remember being influenced by the description I read of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in their local graveyard as they attempt to rid themselves of warts by taking a dead cat to the fresh grave of Hoss Williams. As with most of Mark Twain’s stories, the dramatic scene is tinted with bits of comedy.
Excerpt from Chapter 9 of Tom Sawyer:
It was a graveyard of the old-fashioned Western kind. It was on a hill, about a mile and a half from the village. It had a crazy board fence around it, which leaned inward in places, and outward the rest of the time, but stood upright nowhere. Grass and weeds grew rank over the whole cemetery. All the old graves were sunken in…
A faint wind moaned through the trees, and Tom feared it might be the spirits of the dead, complaining at being disturbed. The boys talked little, and only under their breath, for the time and the place and the pervading solemnity and silence oppressed their spirits. They found the sharp new heap they were seeking, and ensconced themselves within the protection of three great elms that grew in a bunch within a few feet of the grave.
Then they waited in silence for what seemed a long time. The hooting of a distant owl was all the sound that troubled the dead stillness. Tom’s reflections grew oppressive. He must force some talk. So he said in a whisper: “Hucky, do you believe the dead people like it for us to be here?”
Huckleberry whispered: “I wisht I knowed. It’s awful solemn like, AIN’T it?”
“I bet it is.”
There was a considerable pause, while the boys canvassed this matter inwardly. Then Tom whispeered: “Say, Hucky — do you reckon Hoss Williams hears us talking?”
“O’ course he does. Least his sperrit does.” Tom, after a pause: “I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”
“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”
This was a damper, and conversation died again. Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said: “Sh!”
“What is it, Tom?” And the two clung together with beating hearts.
“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”
“There! Now you hear it.”
“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”
“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”
“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”
“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”
“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”
The boys bent their heads together and scarcely breathed. A muffled sound of voices floated up from the far end of the graveyard.
“Look! See there!” whispered Tom. “What is it?”
“It’s devil-fire. Oh, Tom, this is awful.”
Some vague figures approached through the gloom, swinging an old-fashioned tin lantern that freckled the ground with innumerable little spangles of light. Presently Huckleberry whispered with a shudder: “It’s the devils sure enough. Three of ’em! Lordy, Tom, we’re goners! Can you pray?”
“I’ll try, but don’t you be afeard. They ain’t going to hurt us. ‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I –‘”
Graveyards in the daylight are not as spooky as in the dead of night. The experiences I always had with Oak Grove cemetery, where many of my relatives are buried, rarely occurred in the dark. Although, the night of the church festival was different.
The festival was always held the Saturday before July 4th in the church parking lot. As the shadows lengthened, we kids would inch our way into the graveyard, hide behind some of the stones, and make some weird hooting sounds as the laughter of the older folks could be heard just a few feet away. It might have been those joyous noises of people eating and visiting nearby that deadened the spookiness of the graveyard on those evenings. Maybe it was the fact that the graves of my ancestors and relatives did not hold me in fear. Perhaps that weakened any thoughts I had that there should be a foreboding sense. I never had the feeling of dread that I got from two other graveyards that I usually only frequented once each year.
The sister church to Oak Grove Lutheran was, at that time, Washingtonville Lutheran Church. Several Hagenbuchs are buried in that cemetery; but at the time of this memory, not as many were. At the top of the hill overlooking the cemetery is the Delong Memorial Hall and the now abandoned Delong Elementary School. When I was a boy, the Montour-Delong fair was held on the school grounds. Now that fair is held at the fairgrounds outside of town.
The fair was a great joy to attend when I was a boy. Every night of the fair, which lasted most of the week, my father would give me a few quarters, maybe even a dollar bill, and state, “Don’t spend it all in one place!” There were a few amusement rides, carnival games (throw the ping pong ball into a small glass bowl and win a goldfish; throw darts at balloons and win a stuffed animal), lots of wonderful foods, the farm animals entered for best of show (not much interest to a farm boy), and all the displays of preserved foods, vegetables, fruits, and the arts and craft projects housed in the school building. But, most of the fun for several of us boys was just getting together and amusing ourselves with the sights, the sounds, making jokes, following girls, and, well, just being boys!
Towards evening, a few of us young lads would find our way down the hill to the church cemetery which, to me, had a strange eeriness to it. There always seemed to be some older young folks hanging around there. Those older ones, boys and girls, were more rambunctious and were “open with their affections” for each other. These older boys would bully us some, showing off for their girlfriends, and scare us with graveyard stories. I remember one in particular which had to do with an albino man who frequented the cemetery and hid behind the gravestones to chase unsuspecting children.
Although I never saw this albino man, I associated the story with the popular ghost story of the man with the golden arm. In my child’s mind I put these two stories together and even to this day when I am in Washingtonville and see the church cemetery, I visualize a huge albino man with long scraggly hair, a golden arm, growling and loping after several screaming children.
The other cemetery, a family graveyard that I visited as a young boy, is located in the Muncy Hills of Pennsylvania where my mother’s family, the Millers and Hilners, lived. My mother’s great grandparents, grandparents, and others of her family are buried at Katy’s Church (Immanuel Lutheran) near Jerseytown, PA. This is an area of rolling hills, back roads, and few residents. Every Memorial Day my mother would go to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of her grandparents, Samuel and Louisa “Miller” Hilner. Her grandparents had taken her in during the depression and Mom had a deep sense of gratitude toward them.
On a Saturday August evening each year, our family would attend the church festival held at Katy’s Church. My mother would reconnect with her cousins from the Miller/Hilner family. The festival was on the same scale as the Oak Grove church festival – homemade foods, Catawissa bottling company sodas (four colors of birch beer: white, red, blue, and brown), and folks visiting. However, unlike the Oak Grove church festival where I helped out even at a young age (since it was my home church) and I knew all the kids, at Katy’s I really didn’t know many people. I would find myself sitting through the night on a bench sucking on a red birch beer and eyeing the cemetery with foreboding.
Over the years the story of Katy Vandine and her ghostly figure haunting the graveyard has been touted over the Internet to the point that many unwelcome visitors show up to “enjoy” a spiritual chill. (Enjoy is the wrong word. There has been destruction and vandalism to the point that it is regularly patrolled by law enforcement. A sad commentary on our times!)
As a boy, I can’t remember knowing the story of the wedding dress, the unwelcome pregnancy, nor the self hanging. All I knew was that the graveyard was eerily off limits even though the festival was set up right beside the rusted wrought iron fence that surrounded it.
Thanks to descendants of the founders of Katy’s church, there are still periodical services held in the sanctuary. These folks are most interested in the religious ministry, as they downplay the ghostly myths surrounding Katy Vandine. I’m proud to say that many of the workers at Katy’s Church are my relatives. You can learn more about Katy’s Church by going to the following Facebook page.
Most cemeteries have spooky stories associated with them, examples being New Bethel in Berks County and Katy’s in Columbia County. But more importantly, cemeteries are places that hold our relatives at rest and should be looked on as a peaceful place to visit and reflect upon our past. The ghostly stories that surround most cemeteries should not be forgotten, but they surely should not be the impetus for folks to visit and certainly never a reason to be destructive, sacrilegious, or disrespectful.
In future articles, other cemeteries will be explored with the emphasis on the Hagenbuchs that rest there in peace.