BARBERTON: Lisa Merrick looks at the tiny New Portage Cemetery near Portage Elementary School and thinks about the settlers of Barberton.
“These are pioneers,” Merrick, a local history buff, said while looking at gravestones from what once was a Mormon cemetery.
As the country prepares for several busy months of a presidential campaign that for the first time will feature a Mormon candidate — Republican Mitt Romney — a tiny cemetery where Mormon settlers were buried more than a century ago continues to fascinate local historians.
The cemetery was fenced in about 13 years ago as a project by local Mormon researchers, who placed historical headstones that had been found near the school into a small plot on school property.
The headstones are from the 19th century, when a Mormon cemetery was believed to be located on the site of Portage school or its parking lot.
Recently, four more headstones were delivered to Merrick from Copley Township resident Jack Welton, who had them on his property for about half a century.
The headstones came from a load of dirt he had gotten in the early 1960s.
Now the headstones are kept in the carriage house of the Norton Historical Society at the Biery House and Museum on Greenwich Road.
Merrick would like the new headstones placed in the New Portage Cemetery.
She wonders whether there are more headstones of settlers buried under the parking lot or other school property.
Portage Elementary, built in 1930 with an addition erected in 1958, was closed this spring. The building, at 800 Wooster Road N, will be sold or torn down, school Treasurer Ryan Pendleton said.
The school district will determine what it must do “if there is a cemetery there,” he said.
School officials simply don’t know whether the building or parking lot were located over an old graveyard, Pendleton said, but the more people “we talk to, the more likely it is there is a cemetery there.”
Mormon historian Karl Anderson of Lyndhurst said the New Portage area of what is now north Barberton was perhaps the third-largest Mormon community in the country at the time, behind Kirtland and Hiram, with 100 to 200 Mormons living there.
“The school is right in the heart of where New Portage was,” he said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as the Mormon church, was founded in April 1830 by Joseph Smith in upstate New York. There are 14.4 million members worldwide, including more than 6 million in the United States and about 3,800 in the Akron area.
The New Portage Mormon community existed from about 1831 until about 1838, when most of the church members left Ohio for Missouri and points farther west, Anderson said. Mormons were buried in the New Portage area, he said, but there is no documentation.
The area played a big role in Mormon history, said Abraham David Benavides, who was a graduate student at the University of Akron and Cleveland State University living in Copley Township in the late 1990s when he and Kevin Matney began to research the Mormon community and the cemetery.
“When the Mormons left Kirtland, they went to New Portage. Some stayed for a while, and from there they went out west,” he said.
Church founder Smith traveled between Kirtland and New Portage often, Benavides said.
The New Portage Mormon location played an important role in what is called Zion’s Camp, a period of Mormon history when many Mormons gathered at New Portage to head west to Missouri to protect other Mormons who were being harassed.
Benavides said the idea was “to help our brothers and sisters who were being persecuted.”
Having grown up in California, Benavides said, realizing that New Portage was near where he was living in Ohio was “neat” and he began researching the cemetery.
Benavides, now an associate professor of public administration at the University of North Texas in Denton, said his hope is that if the old school is sold or torn down, officials and contractors are careful about any old headstones they might discover.
“I would advise that they be cautious when they get to the dirt level,” he said. “If they find something that looks like a stone, that they not hide it but recognize this is a stone and let’s put it” in a cemetery.
“Please be considerate of the fact that there are still stones there and there used to be people buried there,” he said.
More stones missing
The cemetery research and work undertaken by Benavides and Matney has 24 headstones from 1836 to 1893. Merrick said perhaps 100 people were buried in the cemetery, so there are dozens of missing headstones.
Benavides said his hope in creating the memorial cemetery on the school site in 1999 was “to preserve something or restore something that needed to have its rightful place.”
As a Mormon, he said, “we believe in the hereafter members of the church. ... When I die, I am going to meet my ancestors who were before me, and I would like them to be happy that you respected who we were and what we stood for.”
In creating the memorial cemetery at the school, he said, “I was helping out the citizens of New Portage.”
Merrick, a member of the Norton Historical Society and the Norton Parks and Cemetery Board, said she believes “care should be taken to figure out who is here out of respect for the history of the community and for the dead.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.