Neighbors work to restore a forgotten Colonial-era cemetery

News October 30, 2013 0 Comments

A large memorial to Shwenkenfelder “pilgrims” occupies the middle of the Yeakel Cemetery, a small 18th century burial ground for early Chestnut Hill and Springfield Township settlers that a local group is working to preserve. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

A large memorial to Shwenkenfelder “pilgrims” occupies the middle of the Yeakel Cemetery, a small 18th century burial ground for early Chestnut Hill and Springfield Township settlers that a local group is working to preserve. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

by Pete Mazzaccaro

As a kid in East Falls, Jack Yeakel’s grandfather told him that his family had a cemetery named for them somewhere in the city. But the family really didn’t know where it was.

In 1988, the 18-year-old Yeakel started searching for the plot and found it with the help of the Springfield Township Historical Society.

“At that time it was not easy to get to,” Yeakel, now a Flourtown resident, said. “It was kind of a cool adventure to have, being in high school and finding this overgrown cemetery.”

Yeakel had essentially “rediscovered” the Yeakel Cemetery, a 260-year-old burial ground for 53 of the earliest residents of Chestnut Hill and Springfield township. When he found it, the cemetery was choked with weeds and covered in fallen limbs. Many stones were leaning and some were broken. The earliest marble stones had faded to the point where the original inscriptions were no longer readable.

Yeakel began researching the cemetery and began to document the names of those buried there. The earliest interment was of Maria Yeakel in 1752, and the last was of Matilda Heydrick in 1902.

He discovered that a forefather some nine generations removed, Chris Yeakel of Chestnut Hill, had fought in the Revolution and was buried there with three other Revolutionary War veterans.

In addition to Yeakels and Heydricks, other surnames in the cemetery include Dowers, Heebner, Neff, Schubert, Schultz, and Schuman.

Those families were all tied together by their membership in the Schwenkfelder Church, a small Christian community that had traveled to Philadelphia from Germany to escape persecution. The community had no church building, meeting instead in the homes of its members. The church continues to own the small 80-foot-square parcel, which has a small easement for access from Stenton Avenue.

Over the years, Yeakel said he continued to visit the cemetery, taking notes and just keeping tabs on the plot. On one of those visits two years ago, he said that Chestnut Hill Historical Society archivist Liz Jarvis and Schwenkfelder Church member Jerry Heebner came down the path. Out of that meeting, a committee was formed to restore the cemetery.

On a brisk Monday morning in October, Springfield Township resident and prominent historical preservation expert T. Scott Kreilick was directing volunteers in the first phase of restoring the cemetery. The plan was to lay out a grid and document every stone and its condition. Each stone would be marked by GPS for exact coordinates.

The cemetery is small, surrounded by a nearly four-foot tall stone wall and is about a quarter mile north of Stenton Avenue and the Philadelphia city line. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d never find it. To reach the cemetery, visitors need to park behind the Chestnut Hill Lodge at 8833 Germantown Ave. and, from there, walk along a narrow trail through a wooded area in which the cemetery is fairly well hidden.

CemeteryMap

Kreilick and his associates said they are several months away from finishing the first phase of information gathering in the restoration process.

“The intent is to document and assess now, and conserve when additional funds are raised,” Kreilick said. “Every stone will get some level of attention. Every one that is broken will be pinned together. Every one that is leaning will be reset.”

And it’s clear that, although the grounds are weed free and fallen tree limbs and wall stones have been cleared, a lot of work remains. Kreilick pointed out many thin, fragile stones that are leaning.

“Those will fail eventually,” he said.

He hopes that through research, some of the faded marble stones – many of the granite stones from the early 1800s on still look new – will be identified and plaques can be placed next to them with the information on who is buried below.

“I would never suggest that we re-carve a stone,” he said. “In doing that you’re removing original material and our goal is to conserver original material.”

The committee steering the cemetery restoration efforts brought Kreilick aboard because of his expertise. Kreilick was a champion of the preservation of the Black Horse inn in Flourtown. He has also worked around the country in other larger cemetery efforts, including the Colonial Cemetery in Savannah, Ga., and the cemetery at the U.S Military Academy at West Point, where his company, Kreilick Conservation, cleaned 3,000 headstones.

Kreilick said it will take months to get an assessment prepared of what needs to happen at the cemetery. In addition to stone repair, a fallen section of a schist wall will need to be repaired, and seasonal runoff that has flowed through the cemetery will need to be managed with berms and other drainage solutions to prevent further wear and tear on the hillside cemetery.

The committee is hoping to raise $72,000 for the effort. Early fund-raising has already produced a gift of $8,500 from Bowman Properties and $1,000 from other private donors. The committee is hoping to also raise money from Springfield Township homeowners who live near the cemetery and from the broader community. The Schwenkfelder Church will oversee the fund.

In the meantime, Yeakel created a website where people can learn more about the cemetery and its history at yeakelcemetery.com. And a cemetery that has long been lost to all but a very few who knew about it, will once again be a well-known part of the neighborhood’s early history.

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