Festival 2009 Part III: The Past Comes Alive at Shamokin Cemetery
By many, a cemetery is considered an eerie, morbid, sometimes even macabre place. It’s an overused setting in films and novels of the horror variety, and is not very often associated with anything other than death or desolation in some form. But, although a cemetery certainly marks some of the more despondent moments of history, it is also, to the people who made the Shamokin Cemetery tour on Saturday, May 23rd possible, a place to recognize and remember those who are buried there, and, for a few hours every year, to bring that past back to life.
Meeting the Past: The Reenactments
At 10 and 2 o’ clock Saturday, the Anthracite Heritage Festival’s Shamokin Cemetery tours, narrated by coordinator Frederick “Fritz” Reed, took visitors on a one-and-a-half-hour walk past the final resting places of many of Shamokin’s most significant citizens. Stops at several gravesites were made, and both the history of the individuals interred there, and the history of the town in general, were recounted during the tour. What truly made the event an unforgettable experience was the appearance of four reenactors–portraying Kimber Cleaver, J.J. John, Henry Reese and Sarah Kulp–who told their stories in the first-person to the assembled Shamokinites of the present day.
The first reenactment of the tour began when, after the introduction and a few stops at various graves and the Soldier’s Circle, the tour continued to the grave of Kimber Cleaver, where Reed slipped briefly behind the headstone and returned wearing an old brown hat. After introducing himself with some shyness as Kimber Cleaver, and remarking on his surprise at all the people gathered to listen to him, he told the crowd that sometimes “Mr. Reed comes by, and we talk.” He’d asked Reed to talk to everyone about Shamokin, but, Cleaver said, “he’s not very talkative.”
“Cleaver” went on to speak of his early days, when he first became a teacher, as his Quaker mother had been. Later, he went into surveying, and built several inventions related to mining, only “I never took a penny, because it was for the miners’ benefit.” He also told of inventing a new kind of protractor, but although he was credited for the invention, he did not receive the rights to it.
Later, he explained, “a lot of my friends decided I should be in politics.” They encouraged him to run for several different offices, which he did, but lost at each in turn, until finally “they ran me for Governor,” where he ran as a member of the Native American party.
“I got beat pretty bad,” Reed, as Cleaver, confessed.
Cleaver assisted in the laying out of the cemetery when it was founded, and in return the company offered him a plot in the cemetery. Gesturing toward the area surrounding the weathered tombstone, Cleaver remarked, “I just took this little one here.”
When the streets of Shamokin were being laid out, he was appointed to name several of them. He chose to name them after famous Americans and men of literature, such as Lincoln and Shakespeare. But, Cleaver explained, he was also urged to name one street after himself, and he reminded the listeners of the tiny one-way alley alongside the current Dollar General store. “That’s Cleaver Street.”
The tour presently moved on to the gravesite of J.J. John, where reenactor David Kopitsky, Sr., looking the distinguished part in a gray top hat and toting an eagle-headed cane, waited for the tour group’s approach. In the role of J.J. John, he began to narrate the story of his long and accomplished lifetime, beginning with his birth in Catawissa in 1829.
“At eighteen,” he explained, “I started to teach.” Some years later, however, he made the first of many career changes: “Then I decided, I think I’ll become a doctor.”
In subsequent years, he became the owner of a pharmacy in Shamokin. Shrewdly, he bought out other local pharmacies until his own was the only one in town, which Kopitsky as Dr. John pointed out was certainly an advantageous situation.
“Dr. John” also told of enlisting in Company K, Thirty-sixth Volunteer Militia when General Lee invaded Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and in 1874 of his election to the State Legislature. As a member of the House, he was a strong supporter of compulsory education, but despite his efforts it never became law during his lifetime.
“I lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six,” Dr. John summed up his story, “and all that time I was concerned about the poor of the community.”
Afterwards the tour group was allowed in to view the nearby large mausoleum. The massive doors, tightly shut, were unlocked and forced open with some difficulty by cemetery keeper Dave Donmoyer, who, once the lock had finally clattered inward onto the marble floor, escorted the group inside. Among those buried in the mausoleum were William McConnell, Shamokin businessman and state senator, and his wife, Ida V. Martz.
Next to speak on the tour was David Kopitsky, Jr. as Henry Reese. Dressed in an old-fashioned blue police officer’s uniform, which he explained was due to the fact that he became Shamokin’s first chief of police in 1866, he began by telling the listeners of his birth in Wales and immigration to America. In Minersville, he went on, he became a bodyguard during the era of the Molly Maguires, until he joined the army at the outbreak of the Civil War.
It was at this time that Reese gained his most enduring fame. In Petersburg, Virginia, a strategic Confederate stronghold, a number of Union soldiers from Pennsylvania mining backgrounds came up with the plan of excavating a tunnel beneath the Confederate fortifications and setting off a charge of explosives in the “mine” that would destroy the enemy defenses.
This plan, “Reese” told the audience, was accepted.
“So we began to dig…and we began to dig…and we began to dig.”
But, when the digging was completed and the explosives put in place, the Union soldiers waited several hours for the blast that never occurred. Finally it was decided that two men–with Reese as one of them–should venture into the mine to find out and repair whatever was delaying the proper work of the explosives. Upon reaching the end of the tunnel, Reese discovered the problem–a break in the fuse–and repaired it. Then, before quickly making his way back to the open air, he carefully lit the famous fuse that would give his name a place of honor in the history books.
This time, said Reese, the charge exploded, creating a great chasm that would soon be known as “the Crater.” At first, it served its purpose, destroying the Confederate fortifications and a number of men.
“We blew approximately 125 of them to smithereens,” Reese recalled.
Ultimately, however, the ensuing “Battle of the Crater” was one of the largest debacles suffered by the Union Army in the Civil War. In five hours, there were approximately five thousand casualties.
It was primarily because of this defeat that although Reese was nominated several years later to receive the Medal of Honor, it was never awarded to him.
Before the tour group moved on, guide Frederick Reed asked Reese to explain his nickname, “Snapper.” In response, the “Hero of the Crater” admitted: “I had a very, very short temper.”
When Reese had taken leave of the group, Reed led the way along the path to the foot of the steps leading deeper into the cemetery. Indicating a charming Victorian lady in pink walking before the Monroe H. Kulp mausoleum, he announced to the crowd: “I’d like you to meet Sarah Kulp.”
During the next few minutes, reenactor Suzanne Kopitsky as Mrs. Kulp recounted to the audience the story of her husband’s career in business and politics. On the subject of his early life in Shamokin, she told the tale behind his nickname, “Farmer,” which according to popular anecdote was bestowed upon him by Shamokin schoolchildren because he lived out of town.
In the middle years of his life, “Sarah” went on, he was urged by friends to run for Congress. Thus, she said, “he got involved in politics–Republican politics–in a very Democratic area.”
Despite all the odds against him, however, he won the election and became the first man from Shamokin to be elected to Congress.
“When he was there,” said Kopitsky, “that’s when we met.”
Their wedding, Sarah recounted, was described as “the prettiest and most prominent wedding in the history of the community.”
“Which was not a bad description,” remarked Sarah with a fond smile.
She went on to describe Kulp’s Edgewood Park project– “a family park, there was no alcohol allowed” –and another of his most well-known accomplishments, Kulpmont: “My husband, who was never bored, decided he wanted to build a town.”
But in 1911, Sarah confided with melancholy to the listeners, Monroe H. Kulp’s life of success and achievement was cut short when he succumbed to an illness of nearly a year’s duration.
“We tried everything,” she said, “but the rheumatism won.”
Sarah concluded by telling the group with sincerity, in words that surely reflect the hope of everyone who brought the past alive on May 23, “We wanted to make sure no one would forget all the things we did.”
Bringing the Past to Life: An Interview With the Reenactors
Before one of the Anthracite Heritage Festival cemetery tours, I had the opportunity of meeting and speaking with the participants about their work, the planning and preparations that go with it, as well as their personal views on the task of a reenactor.
Frederick “Fritz” Reed, who acted both as event coordinator, tour guide and reenactor, has had the responsibility of choosing whom to portray in a cemetery with over 17,000 burials since the tour’s beginnings during the first Anthracite Heritage Festival in 2006. Initially, he said, Kimber Cleaver was selected as one of the historical Shamokinites to be portrayed because his grave’s location fit on the tour route. Reed, a former mayor of Shamokin, added however that Cleaver’s involvement in politics made him a figure he could relate to. Cleaver, he said, was “my kind of person,” and “a great believer in his community.”
The reenactors, who are all volunteers, did not rehearse for the tour, but were given excerpts from county biographies and other history articles which provided them with information on the historical figures they portrayed. The primary source for the portrayals of Monroe and Sarah Kulp was the late Paul T. MacElwee’s definitive 1986 article, “Monroe H. Kulp: Shamokin’s Most Outstanding Citizen,” and Bell’s History of Northumberland County was consulted for the portrayal of J.J. John.
David Kopitsky, Sr., who portrayed Dr. John, said he believed John was “a Renaissance man,” because “he did so many things;” citing John’s numerous careers, from teaching to medicine to politics and insurance.
Asked what kind of image he aimed to paint of Dr. John in the reenactment, Kopitsky said he wanted to portray him as “self-assured,” “self-confident,” and “not afraid to tackle” a situation.
As a reenactor, Kopitsky said, his goal was “being able to portray the history to those who are interested in learning about it,” and to “give back to the community.”
David Kopitsky, Jr., who portrayed Henry Reese, was enthusiastic and experienced on the subject of history and said that as a history teacher he had known of Reese for some time because of his significant role in the Civil War. To Kopitsky, Reese was an immigrant to America who took advantage of the opportunities in the new country, and ultimately “made a good life for himself and his family.” Kopitsky acknowledged however that though Reese was also an accomplished police officer and Shamokin burgess in his later years, his primary claim to fame was his war record, and had the Civil War not happened, he might have “fallen into obscurity.”
When asked to sum up his overall objective as a reenactor, Kopitsky responded confidently:
“To give an accurate portrayal, and to let those who are watching make their own interpretation.”
Suzanne Kopitsky had the two-fold task of portraying Sarah Kulp, while primarily discussing the biography of Sarah’s husband.
“I tend to portray her,” Kopitsky said, “as a classy lady,” and “affectionate for her husband.”
Kopitsky described Monroe H. Kulp as a “resourceful” man who it seemed was involved in almost everything of importance in Shamokin at the time. She also mentioned the notable Shamokin couple’s reputation for philanthropy and regard for their community.
“They were very giving people,” Kopitsky remarked.
On the subject of what she hopes to achieve as a reenactor, Kopitsky said, “I feel like there’s so much history in Shamokin that has the potential to be lost. I want to make sure that this [tour] keeps going so that that history isn’t lost.”
Kopitsky concluded by saying that she hoped more volunteers would contribute to the tour, which was short this year by two reenactors.
“I would like each stop that Fritz makes to have one person there.”
Then, as the next tour group approached, “Sarah” went to join the others as they walked the graveyard paths, three long-gone personalities of Shamokin’s olden days, resting in the cool, dark window seats of the large mausoleum, or standing on the hill, watching for the arrival of another group of visitors. But as the day ended, and they left the cemetery to walk back to contemporary lives, canes swinging and skirts bustling, those same long-gone personalities became once more the silent names on the weathered gravestones, reposing for another year.