Past lives

Woodland Cemetery tours through murder, mystery, mayhem

By Terri Gordon

In 1840, Dayton was growing rapidly. Its downtown cemeteries were filling fast. Town leaders decided to develop a more permanent repository—one that would accommodate the growing population, one more rural and scenic, and one that wouldn’t be consumed by the growing town.

Mayor John Van Cleve set about finding such a locale. Forty acres of wooded, hilly farmland on the town’s outskirts caught his eye. With old growth trees and scenic views, it was selected as the future site of Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum. According to Tour Coordinator Debra Mescher, the first official burial took place in 1843.

“You’ll find some earlier burials here because the smaller church cemeteries downtown moved them out here,” she says.

The cemetery grew to over 230 acres since its inception, and it is no longer out in the boonies, but fully encompassed by the city.

“They didn’t think the city would expand so much,” Mescher says, laughing.

At the time Woodland was created, people used cemeteries to visit with the deceased. It was common for people to picnic together among the monuments. Woodland was born of this movement and is the country’s fifth oldest garden cemetery. The oldest section of the cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (as are the Romanesque chapel and administration building, both built in 1889).

Named Woodland for the trees, the cemetery continues to cultivate its collection of more than 3,000 trees and other native woody plants. Several trees are centennial, some recognized by the Ohio Forestry Association as “Ohio Champions.”

A mausoleum was added in 1970, with stained-glass windows displaying nature themes from literary and religious works and traditions.

There are more than 107,000 burials at Woodland Cemetery. Many of these people are well known—aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright, inventor Charles F. Kettering, NCR founder John H. Patterson, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and more recently, columnist Erma Bombeck. Other folks have faded from the collective memory, but are no less important to Dayton’s development.

John Van Cleve, the mayor who scouted for Woodland’s property, was also the first white male born in the city, in 1801. He taught himself art, engineering, map-making, law, and music. He used his skills in botany and surveying to oversee the planning, mapping, subdividing, financing, and overall execution of the city’s new cemetery. When he died in 1858, he was buried near the top of Lookout Hill—Dayton’s highest peak.

Woodland Cemetery still functions as a cemetery—and has space to grow for some time to come—but the organization understands its historical significance and works to preserve and promote it. To that end, they have created a series of walking tours and events that they conduct throughout the year.

Starting in June and running through October, Woodland offers themed walking tours—the Woodland Historical Tour, the Mausoleum Tour, and the History Mystery, Mayhem and Murder Tour. The Historical Tour is a tour of the graves of early pioneers, inventors, and entrepreneurs whose inventions and contributions made Dayton—and the country—prosper and grow. The Mausoleum Tour examines the 12 stained-glass windows and historically important markers.

The most strenuous of the walks is the History Mystery, Mayhem and Murder Tour. Covering two miles of hilly terrain, it is not for the faint of heart (a bus tour can be arranged for them). The tour visits the resting places of those whose lives were marked by scandal, tragedy, or just plain oddity. There are the graves of the king and queen of the gypsies, the murdered girl whose killer—her own mother—confessed the secret as she herself lay dying, the prostitute trying to go straight, murdered by her boyfriend in revenge.

Sometimes history and oddity converge. Bar owner James Ritty felt his workers were walking away with his profits. He solved the problem by devising an “incorruptible bartender,” in essence, the first cash register. John H. Patterson, seeing its potential, bought the design and started the National Cash Register Company to manufacture and market it.

The History Mystery, Mayhem and Murder Tour is a popular tour, especially in October when twilight tours are conducted with lanterns.

“It’s not a ghosty thing,” Mescher says. “We just do some of the tour after hours in the dark.”

While these tours are conducted on a regular basis, they are not the only events, or even walks, the people at Woodland offer. There is a tree walk, a tour of the tombs of famous women, a tour of famous sports figures, and spring, summer, and autumn bird walks. Woodland teams up with the Humane Society for a Woof Walk, and there is a tour of Lookout Hill. Also popular is the Discover Woodland Days event, where volunteers dress as the people to tell their stories. Lastly, there is the self-guided Millionaire’s Row Private Mausoleum Tour. The cemetery office has maps and CDs visitors can use to learn about the more-than-30 family mausoleums. All guided tours and events require reservations, and the Woodland staff will cheerfully answer any questions.

“We try to educate people on the history of Dayton,” Mescher says. “We consider Woodland Dayton’s outdoor museum. We have all the early inventors at the cemetery. I don’t think people understand how important we are—how important we were.”

Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum is located at 118 Woodland Ave. in Dayton. For more information, please visit or call 937.228.3221.

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Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks ( is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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