At St. James Lutheran Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in Bell Township, more than 40 headstones fell. Patina and names have faded. The cursive writing engraved on some of the oldest stones is there, but barely visible.
Some stones are so old that they have been erased from their history or identification.
A community group is mounting a public campaign to help preserve parts of the North Westmoreland County Cemetery – home to a key Revolutionary War figure.
Established around 1803, the cemetery along St. James Church Road is the burial place primarily of residents born in the 18th century and who died in the 19th century.
The St. James Cemetery Association hopes to raise $20,000 to cast footers and restore fallen headstones. Township supervisors, the Bell Township Historical Preservation Society and contractors huddle to find a way to pay and get the project started.
Recently, a landscaping crew from the Township of Allegheny removed over 300 yucca plants that were overgrowing the cemetery, making it impossible to mow in some sections. Dozens of overturned rocks were found, said Lee Schumaker, owner of J&L Lawncare with his son Justin.
The Washington Wagon Wheel Maker
The Daughters of the American Revolution installed a new headstone in 1928 for one of the most important burial sites – Mathias Ringle (1742-1811), wagon builder for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
He was a survivor of the Continental Army’s brutal winter encampment at Valley Forge from 1777 to 1778.
Ringle, a native of eastern Pennsylvania, served under Washington from 1776 to 1783.
He returned to Pennsylvania as an accomplished blacksmith. In 1797, Ringle purchased 400 acres in Hempfield Township and built a large, spectacular home which was completed in 1803, said Dolores Colledge, 91, of Avonmore. Colledge is the last remaining board member of the Bell Township Historic Preservation Society.
According to accounts from genealogy websites, Ringle married twice and raised 17 children.
John Ringle, 72, of Vandergrift, grew up in Bell, a mile from the cemetery. He considers Mathias Ringle to be his fifth great-grandfather. He and a few friends reset Ringle’s original headstone circa 1970 after vandals knocked over rocks all over the cemetery.
“I hope future generations of the family will take their children there,” he said. “Like me, they need to spread the word and show them: this is it.”
Ringle’s descendants have visited the cemetery over the years.
St. James is home to some of the families who were the first settlers in the township, according to Colledge.
Long-standing township families like the Ringles, Yockeys and Fennels were connected to Colledge’s late husband, Robert Colledge.
The Colledges welcomed Ringle family members from across the country, then received their Christmas cards from Colorado, New Mexico and other states.
“You were related to everyone in the neighborhood,” Colledge said of her husband’s line.
“The cemetery is where they all ended up. It is one of the oldest cemeteries in the region. And if this is not preserved, history will be lost.
Conservation is not easy
Bell Township supervisors are limited in how much they can help, but are exploring possibilities.
“The cemetery is part of the community,” said supervisor John Bowman. “A lot of people who used to live in Bell Township are here as well as those who served in the armed forces.”
While the historical significance of the cemetery is undeniable, officials say there is no clear path to preserve it or the church next to it.
According to Lyman Tickle, 64, of Bell and president of the St. James Cemetery Association.
Tickle grew up near the cemetery and the church. He remembers the strawberry festivals that took place there at the beginning of autumn.
“They cooked some really good food which was always well received by the community,” he said.
Efforts to preserve the church were thwarted by a fire. The empty, condemned church is private property, Tickle said.
But the cemetery resisted.
At around 4.5 acres, the cemetery is “pretty full,” Tickle said. He doesn’t have many accounts.
Some burial plots have only an inch of stone protruding from the ground, he added.
Although there are still a few spots available, Lyman said that in his 20 years on the association’s board, he’s sold about six lots.
There was an endowment producing interest payments used for mowing grass but, Tickle said, “interest rates are peanuts.”
Mowing costs dug the principal, he said. “It’s hard to follow.”