Resident restores cemetery, uncovers history

BURGETTSTOWN – As Ron Viskovicz traveled home each day, he passed an overgrown patch of bramble that had overtaken a cemetery on Keys Road.

The cemetery once was part of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, which had merged with the Burgettstown Presbyterian Church. The church building had been sold, and the last burial in the cemetery had taken place in 1937.

Viskovicz, who moved to Burgettstown from Pittsburgh 20 years ago, is a member of the Burgettstown Presbyterian Church, and that small, wooded plot holding a few score graves bothered him. He also was concerned about a second overgrown cemetery, which once accepted burials through the Burgettstown Presbyterian Church and had accepted its last burial in the 1930s.

“I don’t know why,” Viskovicz said of the cessation of burials. “We don’t have any records. We thought there were some, but when we looked, they weren’t there. When the churches merged, there were supposed to be records there (at Westminster), but they never found anything. I always wondered why they stopped.”

In 2001, Viskovicz began cutting a path through the Westminster cemetery. Because of fallen tombstones and branches, he had to use weed-whackers and chainsaws. The going was slow, but the cemetery was revealed bit by bit. Viskovicz found graves dating back to 1830, although Westminster wasn’t chartered until 1894, leading him to believe it may have begun as a family or community plot.

“I found a bunch of Keys along the road, and I figured that was where the road got its name,” he said.

Names such as Smith, Brown, Miller, Welch, Vincent, Wilson Aken, Pyles, Divitt, Kidd, Dugan, Woodburn, Provines, Donnan, Scott, McGough and Conventry were revealed. Also revealed were markers identifying at least two veterans of the Revolutionary War; a handful of veterans from the Civil War, with Grand Army of the Republic star-shaped markers; and several veterans of the Spanish-American War, which took place from 1898 to 1901.

“I consider myself to be very patriotic, and that (the condition of the veterans’ graves) bothered me,” he said. “They should be recognized and remembered.”

Over two years, Viskovicz cut a path from one end of the cemetery to the other. Through serendipity, he would receive help after a chance meeting at the cemetery.

“One day, I went down there, and there was this girl, she was in her 20s, writing down information from the graves,” he said. “She said she was getting information for a historical society, and she steered me to (Fort Vance Historical Society member) Mary Westlake. Mary got me in contact with the FITS group.”

The Washington County Furlough Into Service Program allows nonviolent inmates to work on large-scale community service projects throughout the county. Over the next five years, a FITS crew would be sent to both cemeteries each year, where the inmates cut the grass, cleared fallen branches and trees and re-set fallen headstones.

“I had them down for four weekends,” said Viskovicz. “They probably had 18 people, and someone donated a wood-chipper. It was amazing, the amount of work they got done. They cleared a lot of it, and they came back every year for about five years.”

At one point, a 15-foot-high obelisk fell, and the FITS crew assisted in re-setting it.

“The one guy told me, ‘I’ve been thinking about this all year, how to get that back on its base,’ and he set up a block and tackle in the tree and pulled it back up in place,” he said. “It must have been someone well-to-do, to have that big monument and a fence around it. Those headstones are heavy – we’ve had eight, 10 guys just to put one back in place.”

The grave is marked with a marker indicating a Revolutionary War veteran and the obelisk bears the name Conventry.

Since the cemeteries have been cleared, the Slovan Veterans of Foreign Wars and Burgettstown American Legion have placed American flags on the veterans’ graves. Locals John Weidert and Bob Wolanski assisted by providing flags and grave markers.

“There was one older lady at church who has family in the cemetery and she thanked me for clearing their graves,” Viskovicz said.

The Burgettstown Presbyterian Church maintains a cemetery fund, which provides funds to have the cemeteries rough cut twice a year. Cassidy Signs provided markers for the cemeteries.

Since 2009, Viskovicz has maintained the cemeteries without the aide of work crews.

“I’ve got a quad, so I can get up in there and get rid of things,” he said. “I take care of what I can. We had a nasty storm up there, and a lot of trees fell. I burned up a chainsaw cutting them up.”

In addition to caretaking the two cemeteries, he maintains a path between the cemetery and a small family plot which once belonged to the Burgett family, which founded the borough.

“It’s just a little one, about 15 feet by 15 feet,” he said. “A Burgett and some of their family.”

Viskovicz got a surprise while reading a Jan. 9 article about a sampler created to memorialize James and Jane R. McNary’s three children, a daughter who died in early childhood and two infant sons, who lived in Smith Township. The sampler included the childrens’ obituaries, and the text was reproduced with the article.

“Reading that was like deja vu,” he said. “Because I have seen that same exact thing on a headstone in one of these cemeteries.”

He would like to have assistance in recording those inscriptions that are still visible.

“Some that are sandstone, you can’t barely read, but others are marble and they’ve lasted a little longer,” he said.

Assistance in maintaining the cemetery, especially clearing leaves and fallen tree branches and re-setting headstones, also is needed. Viskovicz would like to erect a fence around the cemeteries, but the cost is prohibitive.

Those interested in recording inscriptions or helping maintain the cemeteries can call Viskovicz at (724) 947-9378.

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at swallace@pafocus.com)