Grave matters: Harkins Cemetery

VIENNA, W.Va.- Harkins Cemetery in Vienna is the final resting place of four Civil War veterans but they didn’t all have markers until just a few years ago.

Among those buried in Harkins Cemetery are Civil War veterans Abisha Clark, Lafayette Nelson, Henry A. Headlee and Stephen W. Matheny.

A local man noticed several years ago that three of the four soldiers had either damaged or no grave markers, so he took it upon himself to repair or order new markers for the Civil War veterans.

“Nelson’s original headstone was broken in half and covered by an ant hill,” said Jeff Smith, Williams District coordinator for the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society’s Rural Cemetery Alliance committee. “Being a veteran myself I knew that I needed to fix the marker to show respect for a soldier’s grave.”

Nelson’s story was particularly tragic to Smith because of how young he was when he passed away. His father, Benjamin F. Nelson, signed his enlistment papers giving permission for his 16-year-old son to go off to war, according to Smith’s research.

“I can’t imagine a mother letting a son that young go off to war,” said Smith. “It’s such a tragic thing to lose a life that young.”

According to Smith’s research, Nelson was admitted to the hospital on April 30, 1865 and listed as being sick. He was officially discharged from service in June 7, 1865 and died exactly one month later.

“I was unable to find out exactly what happened to Nelson in my research,” said Smith. “My best guess is that he came down with some sort of disease during his time in the military.”

In 2011, Smith placed an order through the United States Veterans Affairs office to replace Headlee and Clark’s markers.

“Private Headlee’s marker was missing from the cemetery completely, and Clark’s marker was worn down so much that it was illegible,” he said.

The replacement markers were donated by the veteran administration after Smith filled out and submitted the proper paperwork.

“I got the records for these soldiers from a website that I’m a paid member of called,” Smith said. “Once I have the records and paper work finished, I simply mail it in and wait for the replacement markers.”

Smith’s hard work on the cemetery is especially important because all the work there is done through donations and volunteers.

“It’s a real shame to allow our pioneering families’ final resting places to turn into a place of shameful conditions,” said Smith. “It’s important to me to help take care of these places for the families who visit.”

Dottie Joyce has lived beside Harkins Cemetery for the last 30 years and has noticed how it has changed.

“When we first moved here I barely knew there was a cemetery across the street because it was so overgrown,” she said. “Over the years people have come to mow it, but no one really took the time to restore it like Jeff (Smith) has.”

Over the years, Harkins Cemetery has been called a number of names including Harkness, Stapleton and Upper Briscoe Run, according to Smith.

“There are at least 118 burials in Harkins Cemetery and the earliest known grave was in 1844,” he said. “The most recent burial in the cemetery was in December of 2008.”

Joyce has tried to do her part to help make Harkins Cemetery a better place for visitors, she said.

Last summer she made a donation of two white stone benches on either side of the cemetery.

“I thought it would be really nice to have a place to sit,” she said. “It can get very hot in the summer and I hope those benches might provide visitors a place to relax.”

Joyce admits there aren’t often additional burials, but that the cemetery is visited fairly often.

“Especially in the summer, several people a week stop by,” she said.

She credits the renewed interest in the cemetery to the work that Smith does to restore the grounds.

“Before Jeff started working on it no one even knew it was there,” said Joyce. “I admire him a great deal for the work he does.”

Smith continues to take care of Harkins in the hopes that he can do more to restore the site in the future, he said.

There are numerous depressions, indicating the burial of someone who has no marker.

Unearthing and restoring as many of these types of lost markers are his ultimate goal.

“A life lived is a life worth remembering,” said Smith.