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Wagar Cemetery

In 1820, $777 bought Mars Wagar 111 acres of what would become prime real estate in present-day Lakewood, Ohio. When the educated pioneer staked his claim in East Rockport (as Lakewood was then known), he set aside a portion of this land to be used as sacred ground for the burial of beloved family members. Soon Wagar's "acre" became a welcoming eternal resting place not only for those beloved family members, but also for fellow pioneers; friends and neighbors who collectively hashed it out in the wilderness on the shores of Lake Erie. Even later, the designated land would become the center of a debate between historical preservation and economic progress.

By 1925, the cemetery had fallen out of use, and what Wagar called "God's Acre" morphed into a wild, unkempt stretch of land flanked by a diner, a billboard, and a sand bank. The cemetery became a haven for vandals and especially those unafraid children who found it a great shortcut to and from school. In the late 1940s, concern over the polluted and potentially hazardous space grew, and a number of citizens pushed to have the land preserved to pay homage to the pioneer families who built the community of Lakewood. However, since the land had been divided among Wagar's descendents, no agreements could be made. Furthermore, without a cemetery register unmarked grave sites could not be properly identified.

Eventually, in the mid-1950s the land fell into the hands of the City, which moved forward with a plan to convert it into a parking lot. In 1957, parts of 54 (later determined to be closer to 84) human skeletons turned up during excavation of the cemetery. The skeletons were placed in a mass grave in the Lakewood Park Cemetery, while their former home is now the foundation of a parking garage for Lakewood Hospital.

Images

Wanna See a Dead Body? School children use the abandoned Wagar Cemetery as a shortcut to and from school in 1930. The early settlers of Lakewood would never have forseen this. Young children used the old Wagar Cemetery as a shortcut to and from school, trampling over the graves of those pioneers who came to the Rockport area around 1820. The neglected cemetery served as not only a shortcut for school children, but also a great place to pull childhood "pranks." One young man recalled such a prank when he and his friend, in 1915, decided to bring home two skeletons after stumbling upon a couple of unearthed coffins. Needless to say, the prank did not go over very well with the friend's father, who, upon discovering the remains in hid backyard chicken coop, made the boys return the bodies, putting an end to the merry pranksters' days of grave robbing! Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
A Burdensome Inheritance Mars Wagar built his stone house, pictured here, in 1837 on the southeast corner of Detroit and Warren Roads. It was razed in 1882 to make room for his son Francis' framed structure. When Mars Wagar created what became known as the Rockport Cemetery on his own private property, little did he know he would leave behind a burden for future generations. In 1888, Mars' son Francis built a grand Victorian home on the same site as his childhood home -- the southeast corner of Detroit and Warren Roads. By 1891, a few short years after Francis built his dream home, the small local cemetery his father had built just east of the homestead welcomed its last guest. The "mournful patch of land in the center of Lakewood" became neglected and forgotten, receiving little attention until the 1920s when an effort was made to preserve it. The question arose: Should the land remain as a lasting historical site, or should it give way to the currents of economic progress? Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Reminders of the Past Joseph and Sarah Curtis Hall came to East Rockport from Chatteris, England in the 1830s and settled in a stone house on Detroit Avenue at Marlowe. They were originally buried in Wagar Cemetery, where this photograph was taken in 1930. The gravestones that exist from the Wagar Cemetery are gentle reminders of not only the hardships of pioneer life, but also the lost art of stone cutting. Unfortunately, not many stones remain. The movement to preserve the cemetery in the 1920s ended in a dispute between the Wagar descendants and the city of Lakewood. Since no agreement could be reached on the potential "fate" of the burial site, the graves and markers slowly made their way into obscurity amid the surrounding flora and silently served as a backdrop to neighborhood diners, billboards, and a sandbank. This stone, belonging to Joseph Hall is one of the few remaining stones now resting (without their owner's bodies) in an herb garden behind the Lakewood Historical Society in Lakewood Park. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Forgotten and Nameless The deserted Wagar Cemetery offers little solace to visitors, but many stones still tell the stories of those buried here. This photo was taken in 1928. For Mars Wagar's grandson, "God's Acre" remained, in 1938, a burden. The land could not be used until all bodies were removed and buried elsewhere. The cemetery remained silent and would not give up the secrets of its inhabitants; there was no register for the graves that had become the target of vandals and neglect. Since the bodies could not be identified, the graves could not be relocated. The cemetery remained still for another twenty years while the little hamlet of Lakewood continued to grow into a thriving city in desperate need of more and more space. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
All Are Sleeping Trash litters the grounds of the Wagar Cemetery in a grim, cold photo taken in 1930. Who lies here in this deserted place? Who will come to remember John Farrow, who played the organ and gave music lessons to children? Who will mourn over the graves of the children, of the five day old baby girl belonging to Joseph Howe and Ellen Calkins? These settlers came with hopes and dreams and look at what has become of them. Did Mars Wagar have different hopes for the little plot of land he set aside for his loved ones and fellow pioneers? Mars' mother Lucy is buried here somewhere. She was the first inhabitant of this sacred ground in 1826. She was here to welcome the others, but no one else is listening. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
A Place to Dwell for All Eternity Among the scattered tombstones seen here in 1930, Jonathan and Hannah Bates' stands out. Even though the cemetery could not survive the progress that encroached upon it, the early inhabitants of Rockport would not be forgotten. The diners, billboards, and sand bank that flanked the cemetery only served as a temporary barrier. Over sixty years after the last body was laid to rest in Wagar's acre, the dead were still speaking, and someone was listening. The historical significance of these pioneers and their accomplishments began to surface, and now many of their stories are being told. Jonathan and Hannah Bates (their tombstone lies in the foreground of the photo) left behind an interesting inscription: "How desolate our home bereft of thee." Everyone deserves a home, and Mars Wagar knew this all too well. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers Discarded tombstones lie in the city dump in this image from 1958. A sacrilege or merely economic progress? Many were eventually removed and preserved in the herb garden behind the Lakewood Historical Society's Oldest Stone House. Mars Wagar's dream of owning his own piece of heaven became a reality for the educated pioneer. Mr. Wagar was a mathematician, a surveyor, and fluent in several languages. He even helped to build Lakewood's first log cabin schoolhouse on the corners of Detroit and Nicholson Roads. Wagar's 111 acre investment did much to boost the economic progress of his village, but it also did something greater. It allowed family, friends, and neighbors the opportunity to build a history - their own history through their stories of hardship and loss. It continues to allow a community to remember its first members and their contributions to a place they consider home. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Deceased Make Room for the Living With an evergrowing population, the city of Lakewood found itself, in the mid-fifties, in dire need of more space for its burgeoning medical facility. The forgotten cemetery was the answer to this pressing need for more space, and the city of Lakewood finally convinced Wagar's descendents that economic progress was far more important than the preservation of historical space. The Lakewood Hospital, now part of the Cleveland Clinic, purchased the Wagar Cemetery from the city. However, the tenants of Wagar's cemetery would not remain silent: In 1957, parts of 54 human skeletons turned up during the excavation for a new hospital parking lot. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections

Location

The cemetery was replaced by a parking garage.

Metadata

“Wagar Cemetery,” Cleveland Historical, accessed October 4, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/265.