BELLVILLE -- It’s not every day those buried in a cemetery can stroll through the rows of headstones and converse with their visitors.
But that’s exactly what happened Saturday morning during the Cemetery Walk in Bellville. Deceased residents of the village returned to life in the form of actors who shared their story.
“Every year it becomes more professional. It’s like they outdo themselves,” said event organizer Lynn Fox.
The Bellville-Jefferson Historical Society has hosted the Cemetery Walk for four years. Fox founded the event after attending a cemetery walk in Johnsville. She even contacted the organizers there for advice.
Each year’s cemetery walk includes different people from Bellville’s history.
“There are a lot of stories from Bellville history. I’ve never had a problem coming up with characters,” said Fox, historian and meeting president for the historical society.
Fox said the biggest challenge in organizing the event is finding volunteers willing to portray the characters. She sometimes recruits family members of the deceased to embody their predecessors.
“Sometimes it’s an ancestor of someone who stops into the museum,” Fox said. “When I know that they’re researching that ancestor already, I invite them to participate.”
One couple, David Smith and Sue Ann Snyder Smith, came all the way from Chicago to play the husband and wife duo Benjamin and Abigail Mitchel Jackson.
The Jacksons are Snyder Smith’s fourth-generation great grandparents.
“They have a son who's buried here, Benjamin Jr, who was a judge in the area for a while to a farmer and a merchant as well,” Snyder Smith said. “So I feel like I am kind of part of Bellville because these are my roots.”
The Jacksons hailed from New Jersey and migrated to the wilds of Ohio in 1812. Benjamin was a Revolutionary War veteran who fought on the side of the rebels. Abigail came from a family of Loyalists, but lost touch with them after marrying Benjamin at age 19.
“Have you ever heard of such a thing? Of political divides separating families?” Abigail asked her audience, who responded with chuckles.
This year featured residents with birth years ranging from 1752 through 1886. Fox researched the residents and provided information to the actors, who developed their own monologue scripts.
“Getting information for the men is relatively easy, but finding information on any of the women ... it’s like looking for hen’s teeth,” Fox said.
Most women in the early days of Bellville were homemakers. The details of their lives went undocumented.
Nevertheless, Saturday’s Cemetery Walk featured four Bellville women -- Abigail Mitchel Jackson, Ruth Markey Fitting, Emeline A Charles and Nell Gatton Wade.
Jackson and Fitting were accompanied by their husbands, while Charles and Wade shared their stories independently.
Charles, portrayed by Bellville native and researcher Rhonda Bletner, was born in 1834 in Washington Township. She owned her own business, a millinery and ladies’ fashion shop.
She never married.
“Milliners typically didn't marry,” Charles said. “It's a demanding business. Also, husbands can take control of your business, they control your finances.”
“We don't have time for marriage,” she added. “The hats are made totally from scratch.”
Charles travelled to Cleveland and New York regularly to keep up on the latest fashions and bring them back to Bellville.
Not far from where Charles is buried alongside her parents and sister, Frederick M. Fitting stood with his wife, Ruth Markey Fitting. The Fittings were portrayed by Bellville residents Norris and Jan Tangeman.
Frederick Fitting was born in Knox County but later became one of Bellville’s most prominent landowners and entrepreneurs. His parents, Jasper and Fanny, migrated to Knox County from Pennsylvania in 1802. They moved to Richland County in 1819.
After graduating from the eighth grade, Fitting loaded up a wagon with produce to haul to Wooster and Sandusky. On the return trip, he brought back big bags of groceries and dry goods from the big city. He later bought into a dry goods store and married Ruth Markey, the daughter of John and Mary. The couple had two daughters, one of whom died just shy of her 10th birthday.
Fitting went on to work as a miller, a real estate investor, a banker and eventually the vice president of Mansfield Savings Bank.
He donated 12 acres of land for the Bellville Cemetery on the condition that he and his wife would get their first pick for the family plot. They chose the highest point in the cemetery.
While Bellville may bear the name of its founder Robert Bell, it's likely the town would have faded out of existence if not for Fitting.
After Mansfield’s railroad secured its position as the county seat, Fitting knew a rail line would be key to Bellville’s economic future. He invested $25,000 of his own money in order to bring the B&O Railroad to town.
“Of all the roles I played, I would like to be known as the man who brought the railroad to Bellville,” Fitting said.
Down the hill, Mitchell Au portrayed another prominent Bellville resident -- Miller Moody. Moody was born in Knox County in 1821. His family later moved to Bellville, where he served as mayor in the late 1840s. He went on to serve in the Ohio legislature from 1849 to 1850. He led a company of 75 men in the Civil War.
“We were the first regiment to cross the Ohio River into the southern Confederacy,” Moody told visitors. “We performed guard duty along the B&O Railroad and repaired and rebuilt bridges burned by the rebels. My unit was in the Battle of Phillipi, which was the first battle of the War.”
Moody was mortally wounded in the battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. He died a few weeks later in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania at 41 years old.
Moody was also responsible for establishing a beloved Bellville tradition. He headed up the first Bellville Street Fair in 1850.
Josh Andra, manager of the Bellville Branch Library, played Theodore Dean. Dean shared the chilling, mysterious tale of his parents’ demise.
By the late 1880s, John and Sarah Dean had retired from farming and were battling serious, painful illness. Sarah eventually lost the strength to get out of bed, while John required two canes to walk.
Theodore Dean lived with his wife and children in a house on Renie Road, but he frequently stopped in town to visit his parents. What he discovered on March 16, 1888 was nothing short of horrifying.
“I saw a bustle of villagers all over my parents’ yard. There were people coming in and out of the house,” he recalled. “I saw a doctor and a policeman. I went inside, only to find my mother lying on her cot with her head split open.”
John was found in the barn with slit wrists and throat and a penknife at his feet. For reasons can will never be fully known, he bludgeoned his ailing wife with a hatchet and then committed suicide.
“I'll never know exactly why he did it,” Theodore reflected. “I’d like to think that it was done out of mercy for the pain that they were in, but I’ll really never completely know.”