Your idea of a perfect day might not be riding around a cemetery on a chilly, showery Saturday, but I was in my element when I boarded a tram for a two-hour private tour of Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery last weekend.
Offered in conjunction with the Taft Museum’s current exhibition, Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art, the tour introduced me and 23 other intrepid sightseers to several artists and authors of 19th-century Cincinnati who are buried at Spring Grove. Cecie Chewning, a former curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum and a Spring Grove docent, was our guide.
Before I share some highlights of the tour Mrs. Chewning prepared especially for us, let me introduce you to one of my favorite spots in Cincinnati.
During the 1830s and early 1840s, Cincinnati was ravaged by a cholera epidemic. Its small municipal and church burial grounds became so crowded that city leaders decided they needed to find a picturesque place that would not only provide proper interment facilities, but also rival outstanding rural cemeteries like Boston’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery and New York City’s Greenwood Cemetery. Spacious, pastoral grounds would offer not only a consoling environment for mourners, but also a well-designed place that was beautiful to behold. In 1844, they found it in 733 acres of farmland northwest of the city and called it Spring Grove.
Horticulturist Adolph Strauch developed a model landscape “lawn plan” concept at Spring Grove, carefully arranging plantings to frame monuments and create scenic views. During his 30-year tenure, Strauch planted over 200 kinds of trees, including ornamental varieties like cucumber trees, cypress and magnolia from the American South, dwarf pines from Silesia, Canadian poplars, vines and shrubs from England, Himalayan evergreens, Persian lilacs, Oriental spruces, Corsican and Scotch pines, French and German tamarisks, and many other unique foreign species that were among the first to be planted in the United States. Over 1,200 diverse species of native and exotic trees, including State and National Champion Trees and a Centenarian Collection, earned Spring Grove the designation as an arboretum. The Woodland, a small forest preserve near the middle of the cemetery, is intended to remain free of burials and monuments. Fifteen lakes, an island, footbridges and over 44 miles of winding roadways complete the picture. For almost 100 years, visiting Spring Grove became so popular that admission tickets were necessary to control the crowds.
Spring Grove’s original lawn plan dictated that flat individual gravestones should be placed around a central family monument so as not to spoil the view. Since the first interment was made in September 1845, Spring Grove has become the final resting place for more than 200,000 people. Many family monuments take the shape of sculptures, Egyptian-style pyramids and obelisks. Others provide excellent examples of cemetery iconography created by skilled local artisans, like this urn and mourning figures on the Harkness and King family monuments.Tree stones, a custom brought to the United States by German immigrants, are the most unusual examples of funerary symbolism at Spring Grove. Here’s one of my favorites.
Mrs. Chewning pointed out a few more tree stones during our tour, including one Herman Suhre carved in the 1880s for butcher Jacob Fritz and 20 members of his family. Topped with a statue of Germania and a figure depicting St. Francis on the front, the tree stone also includes symbols of a snake wrapped around an anchor, ivy, oak leaves, a beaver, two hands clutching an axe, grapes, a squirrel, a honeycomb, a wheel, and an open book with a finger pointing to details about Fritz’s life. You can see several detailed photos of it here.
As we rode through the cemetery, Mrs. Chewning pointed out several monuments and told us what she had discovered while researching the little-known artists and authors they commemorate. When we couldn’t see the detail of a headstone from the tram, she provided us with photocopies of their images so we could see what made them special. Here are a few I especially liked.
The Gano family monument dates from 1827, but it was moved to Spring Grove in the mid-1860s. It was carved by an Englishman named John Arey who was traveling through the area at the time. It is probably the earliest sculpture still in existence that was created in Cincinnati. Cincinnati-area wildlife artist John Ruthven arranged to have a headstone placed on the unmarked grave of Joseph R. Mason, a teenaged Cincinnati artist who accompanied John James Audubon on trips down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, painting the floral backgrounds for over 50 of Audubon’s bird paintings. Mason returned to Cincinnati and worked as a portrait painter until his death in 1842.
A nondescript boulder marks the final resting place of George Ward Nichols, the first husband of Rookwood Pottery founder Maria Longworth. Nichols was a journalist who published The Story of the Great March, his diary of General Sherman’s March to the Sea, in 1865. His interview with “Wild Bill” Hickock appeared in the February 1867 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. After Nichols moved to Cincinnati, he wrote Art Education Applied to Industry (1877) and Pottery: How It Is Made, Its Shape and Decoration (1878).
Charles Rule, an Irish stonecutter who worked at the corner of Broadway and 5th in downtown Cincinnati, created this symbol-filled monument for the Shield family. More interesting monuments followed, including one for John and May Rettic, a couple who lived at 2227 Kemper Lane and planned theatrical extravaganzas about the fall of Babylon and the burning of Rome. We also learned about a rune stone that marks the grave of Arthur Middleton Reeves, a Richmond, Indiana native who translated Icelandic poetry and kept a journal of his 1879 travels in Iceland before his death in a train accident at age 34.
An hourglass-embellished monument marks the final resting place of the Gruens. This family of watchmakers from Germany first practiced their craft in Columbus before moving to Cincinnati in 1898, where they were known for making 45 pocket watches a day. In 1913, the Gruens moved their workshop to a pasture on MacMillan Avenue, named it Time Hill, constructed a building inspired by Medieval guild halls in Belgium, and continued fulfilling their motto to “make useful things in a beautiful way” by applying art to industry. A draped chair and mourning figure commemorate Charles Dannenfelser, a skilled woodcarver and furniture maker who founded the Art Joinery Company before his death in 1916. Dannenfelser’s firm specialized in carving furniture and decorative woodwork by hand; it carved the woodwork for the library of Charles Taft’s house, now the Taft Museum. “The best is yet to be/The last of life, for which the first was made,” from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, is carved on the side of the chair.
The focal point of a monument to Edward Edwards, who manufactured decorative pressed tin ceilings, is Origins of the Harp. This figure of a mermaid and a harp was carved in Rome by Cincinnati sculptor Louise Lawson in 1887. It was exhibited in 1893 during an afternoon of recitations and music at Cincinnati’s Music Hall.
From April through October, Spring Grove offers public tram tours focusing on the cemetery’s history, art and architecture. Click here to see upcoming tours and other events. You can also take a self-guided walking tour or explore the grounds with a map.
To learn more about this National Historic Landmark, read Phil Nuxhall’s Beauty in the Grove: Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum and “Rustic Repose: Spring Grove and the Rural Cemetery Movement,” Stephen C. Gordon’s article in the April-June 2006 issue of the Ohio Historical Society’s TIMELINE.