Montco cemetery to get makeover

Members of the Yeakel Cemetery Preservation Committee (from left) Jack Yeakel, 43, of Flourtown; Liz Jarvis, 58, of Chestnut Hill; and Jerry Heebner, 74, of Lansdale, stand inside the small cemetery.
Members of the Yeakel Cemetery Preservation Committee (from left) Jack Yeakel, 43, of Flourtown; Liz Jarvis, 58, of Chestnut Hill; and Jerry Heebner, 74, of Lansdale, stand inside the small cemetery. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 21, 2013

Since he discovered the cemetery at the end of a trail of waist-high weeds, Jack Yeakel hasn't been able to stay away from the graveyard, which is at least 260 years old.

The general contractor has returned repeatedly during the last 25 years to the Springfield Township, Montgomery County, burial ground that his grandfather once talked about.

An ancestor, the story went, purchased the eighth-of-an-acre patch to serve as a family plot. What Yeakel found was something more: headstones representing families other than his own, and a deteriorating property that seemed a symbol of Pennsylvania's past.

"In a compact space, there are people who represent so many aspects of our history," said Yeakel, 43, "from people who fled persecution, witnessed the Revolutionary War, and survived the yellow fever epidemic."

So the Flourtown resident joined with the historical societies of Springfield Township and Chestnut Hill, along with the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center in Pennsburg, to preserve what they view as an outdoor museum.

The Yeakel Cemetery, which dates to at least 1752, served as a final resting place for some of the area's earliest residents. Tucked away on a slope behind the Chestnut Lodge Health and Rehabilitation Center on Stenton Avenue, the property was also the site of a Revolutionary War skirmish in 1777 in which nearly 40 people died.

Over the decades, the cemetery was owned by several families. It later became a burial ground of the Schwenkfelder Church, a small denomination whose members fled persecution in central Europe. They settled in Southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1730s.

"We want to preserve the cemetery as a way of honoring those who are buried there," said Gerald Heebner, a member of the Yeakel Cemetery Preservation Committee and president of the Schwenkfelder Library.

The cemetery's largest stone commemorates the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Schwenkfelder migration in 1731. The denomination now has 3,000 members who worship in three churches in Montgomery County and one in Philadelphia.

Yeakel's ancestors were Schwenkfelders, including Christopher Yeakel, who made barrels and purchased the cemetery in 1802.

Christopher Yeakel fled Europe with his mother when he was a boy.

"I tried to imagine what it might have been like to leave everything behind," said Yeakel.

Not far from Christopher Yeakel's headstone is that of Abraham Heydrick, who was arrested in 1799 as a leader of Fries' Rebellion, a protest against taxation based on the number of window panes in a house.

"These are ordinary people in this country living the American dream that William Penn offered," said Liz Jarvis, a preservation committee member and curator-archivist at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. "It's a microcosm of what Pennsylvania was all about."

Yeakel and Heydrick are two of at least 53 people buried in the cemetery, which the committee is working to keep from washing away. The cemetery is hit regularly by water runoff.

When Yeakel first discovered the property as a teenager in 1988, much of it was buried beneath tree branches. Weeds were overgrown and a portion of the stone wall that surrounds the property had fallen down. Headstones had toppled and cracked; inscriptions were eroded away.

Yeakel came back again and again, writing down names that he would later research. By 2000, he wasn't alone.

James Taylor of Oreland had learned about the cemetery from a grandfather who told him that it had been owned by his family. Taylor visited the burial ground and returned to do research.

Several years ago, Taylor and Yeakel bumped into each other at a neighborhood soccer game. They had met decades earlier as teenagers working at the same theater.

"We were catching up, and I mentioned the old Yeakel Cemetery, since it's his last name," Taylor said. Yeakel "said, 'That's my ancestor,' and I said, 'Mine, too.' "

At that moment, they discovered they were cousins, descendants of Christopher Yeakel.

Priority is headstones

Since its formation in 2012, the preservation committee has developed a plan to remove hazardous trees, conserve the monuments, and stabilize the stone wall.

Volunteers have helped clean up the site, and the Schwenkfelder Church paid $10,000 to have the once-overgrown path leading to the cemetery cleared.

The committee is raising money to fund the preservation of the cemetery, which will cost an estimated $71,000. So far, nearly $15,000 has been raised.

The preservation of the headstones is the priority, said T. Scott Kreilick, whose Oreland firm is supervising the project.

"The headstones are the greatest historic resource," said Kreilick, who is also president of the Springfield Township Historical Society. "That's the most direct connection to the people who are buried here."

Kreilick has had a hand in the preservation of the weather vane atop Independence Hall, the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol, and 3,000 headstones at the historic cemetery of the U.S. Military Academy.

His company has begun to survey the property and plot the location of stones. The project is expected to take a year.

"This is an archaeological site that you don't have to dig up. It's frozen in time," Jarvis said, "so we need to cherish and protect it."


BY THE NUMBERS

260

years, age of the

Yeakel Cemetery

53

Known graves in the cemetery

$71,000

Amount needed to fund the cemetery's preservation

$15,000

Amount raised so far


610-313-8211 kholmes@phillynews.com.

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