Dr. Jedediah D. Commins wanted to bury his son, but he couldn’t bear the thought.
Akron had no decent place for a public burial.
A Vermont native, Commins was the village’s first druggist, opening a pharmacy on present-day South Main Street after he and his wife, Sophia, and teen sons Augustus and Alexander moved to Akron from New York in 1832, the year that the Ohio & Erie Canal was completed.
The family settled into daily life, becoming well respected in the community of 1,300 people. Tragedy struck five years later when Augustus Commins, described by his father as “a son of much promise, just entering the threshold of manhood,” contracted an illness that no medicine in the druggist’s cabinet could cure. He died Oct. 27, 1837, at age 20.
The death changed the course of local history, leading to the establishment of Akron Rural Cemetery, more commonly known as Glendale, which is commemorating its 175th anniversary this year.
The grief-stricken Commins family considered burying Augustus in a private cemetery on Spicer Hill. The graveyard, established nearly 25 years earlier by pioneers Miner Spicer and Paul Williams, afforded a lovely view of the village, although its soil conditions were dreadful.
According to Akron historian Karl H. Grismer: “Despite its fine location, Spicer Cemetery was considered by many persons as a most undesirable burial ground. The ground was of a clay formation and many veins of water ran through it. As soon as a grave was dug it began to fill with water and the water never drained away.”
Commins refused to let his son’s final resting place be a swampy hill. Instead, he placed Augustus’ body in a receiving casket of alcohol and stored the remains in his South Main Street home for a year.
In the summer of 1838, the druggist traveled to Massachusetts to visit Mount Auburn, a rural cemetery near Boston, to gather ideas to build a tomb for his son. As he gazed at monuments nestled in woods and hills, it occurred to him that Akron should have a rural cemetery, too.
He returned home and lobbied for the proposal, which other villagers quickly deemed worthy. Soon it became the hot topic at local gathering places.
In a meeting that fall, villagers appointed Commins to draw up a charter to establish Akron Rural Cemetery, so called because it would be located on the far outskirts of the village. Although the cemetery is in the city today, the land was wild and untamed 175 years ago.
“If the Akron Rural Cemetery should succeed and become what its founders hope, trifling incidents relating to its origin and establishment may be sought for with avidity, in after ages, by those whose ancestors have long been entombed in this cemetery …” Commins wrote.
Buying the land
The Village Council approved the purchase of six acres from Col. Simon Perkins and Judge Leicester King in the “Oak Openings” district off Maple Street as a home for the cemetery.
According to Akron’s petition to the General Assembly of Ohio in 1839:
“The interment of the dead is a subject of great and growing importance, and one deeply interesting to every well-regulated community, and cannot too early engage their serious consideration.
“In our eastern cities, corporations have been authorized to establish rural cemeteries on a scale commensurate with the wants of many generations, combining the objects of beauty and health, which, instead of being shunned in consequence of their melancholy associations, have become the most desirable promenades, where, retiring from the busy scenes of life, they can at the same time enjoy the beauties of the garden and rural scenery, inhaling the pure air of the country, and, as it were, commune with those who had once been dear to them, in these cities of the dead.”
The Ohio legislature approved an act March 18, 1839, to incorporate the Akron Rural Cemetery Association with Perkins as president, Commins as secretary and Samuel A. Wheeler as treasurer. After the state approved the charter, the village purchased 20 more acres for the cemetery. Then it grew to 88 acres.
The rolling landscape, filled with glens and dales, had several picturesque features, including Willow Brook, Swan Lake, Cypress Valley and Prospect Hill. The park setting was ideal for 19th century carriage rides, picnics and romantic strolls.
Location wins praise
Historian Samuel A. Lane called it “a truly magnificent city of the dead, with fresh surprises at almost every turn while driving or walking through the grounds.”
Professor Oscar Eugene Olin called it “a park for the living and a home for the dead.”
“The grounds have been beautifully laid out with drives and walks and lots of various sizes and shapes, while native trees and flowering shrubs and annual plants and the winding course of Willow Brook unite in a scene of rare loveliness, that almost makes one forget the pageantry of death which is all about him,” Olin wrote.
The village abandoned the Spicer burial ground and transferred its two acres of graves to the new cemetery. The hilltop site was sold for $1 as the future home of Buchtel College, forerunner of the University of Akron.
Akron finally had a suitable place for public burials, and Dr. Commins finally had a resting place for his son. He interred his son’s remains and eventually built a family vault in 1860 on a tree-shaded Glendale hillside, mixing the mortar himself. His wife, Sophia, died in 1865 and Commins followed two years later at age 77.
The names of many prominent local families, including Perkins, Buchtel, Voris, Bierce, Barber, King, Hill, Lane, Crouse, Schumacher and Seiberling, adorn the monuments and markers at Glendale.
Four buildings near the main entrance — the Superintendent’s House (1869), the Civil War Memorial Chapel (1875), the Bell Tower (1883) and the Cemetery Office (1902) — are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The grounds themselves were added in 2001.
Although Willow Creek long ago was encased in a sewer and Swan Lake was drained for a great meadow, Glendale retains a rustic beauty and grand history unmatched in Summit County.
From its humble beginning 175 years ago, the cemetery has grown to 150 acres with more than 30,000 people buried there.
It’s all because one heartbroken father had nowhere else to turn.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.