A Must-See Historic Place, for Everyone
By Emma Jarman
In college, we go there to have a beer atop Lookout Point and watch the sun rise over the Dayton skyline. As new parents, we take our children to hike the wooded grounds, dip their toes in the duck pond and visit Frosty the Snowman’s final resting place (seriously, it’s by the pond). As older parents, we drag our teenagers through historical tours of sports icons and local legends, challenging them to find the Wright Brothers’ gravesite. As grownups we walk the grounds in remembrance of our loved and lost. But no matter our age or reason to visit, the haunting beauty and cavernous foliage that embodies Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum leaves no one unaffected. Walk through the grandiose wrought iron gate at the entrance to the property at the end of Woodland Street, and you’ve entered the not-so-secret garden that is home to a number of famous and infamous Dayton-area deceased.
Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum is considered a garden cemetery, and this is not solely because of the lush greenery and choreographed landscaping. According to their website, “In early times … women died in childbirth and epidemics often killed several members of the same family. The cemetery was a place to ‘talk’ to the deceased while honoring them with flowers. Family picnics were commonplace in large, park-like cemeteries.” Woodland Cemetery is among the nation’s top five oldest garden cemeteries.
Founded in 1841 by John Van Cleve and officially opened in 1843, Woodland’s original 40 acres seemed quite a distance from the center of the small City of Dayton. And, although the city eventually approached and surrounded the property, the sprawling 200 acres it sits on now have maintained and exceeded their primary expectation. In fact, Woodland Cemetery is now recognized as an historical society by the National Register of Historic Places. Memberships to the cemetery’s Arboretum Foundation are available and while the foundation is nonprofit and non-denominational, much of its expenses are covered by donations from its members and also its new Adopt a Tree program, where anyone can either adopt a location for a new tree to be planted or sponsor a sapling.
The original location for the cemetery was chosen for the hilly terrain and vast array of natural foliage, the beauty of which the place was eventually named for. Woodland continues to perform more than 600 interments a year and has the ability to maintain the same schedule for at least the next 100 years. In order to maintain the serenity and natural beauty of the area, there are even limits on memorial decorations put in place by the rules and regulations of the property.
Past memorials have been held for many of Dayton’s most famous (and infamous) inhabitants. Most well-known of those resting in Woodland are the Wright Brothers, who invented powered flight, the wind tunnel and improved propeller designs, and have both a memorial bench and an elaborate monument; Erma Bombeck, author and humorist, whose monument is a boulder from Arizona where she and her husband had lived; poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; inventor Charles F. Kettering; and Matilda and Levi Stanley, Queen and King of the Gypsies. There are also areas of the property dedicated to specific groups of people, which include family mausoleums and group plots, but also designated sections of the cemetery such as a children’s area, particularly for early pioneer children, many of whom died in infancy or before the age of 10, a Greek Orthodox section and altar and the Civil War section.
There are hours upon hours to be spent navigating and exploring the grounds on foot and alone, but Woodland also offers a fantastic collection of guided tours to really get into the history of the area and those buried there. The monthly Historical Tour is a walking tour that encompasses all of the most historically important stops, including, of course, the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Soon, Woodland will also offer historical Segway Tours, which are much like the historical tour but on a set of telepathic wheels. The Mausoleum Tour teaches about Woodland’s magnificent stained glass pieces among many other fascinating artistic aspects of the burial grounds. The Famous Women of Woodland Tour skirts around the gravestones of all sorts of women prominent in Dayton history, from the scandalous Leslie Carter to the brilliant Erma Bombeck. Sports legends in the cemetery include the creator of the McGregor Golf empire, a Harlem Globetrotter and his NBA star son, race car drivers, coaches and rodeo riders. For anyone looking for a quick overview, perfect for lunchtime retreats, the Upper Loop historical tour is a one and a half hour tour covering the best and brightest monuments of the upper part of the cemetery. A complete listing of all the tours and special events offered at the cemetery with registration information can also be found on their website, along with links to adopt a tree, become a member, enter their photo contest, pick up self-guided tour information and to look up the location of loved ones buried on the property.
The Woodland Cemetery is a beautiful place that should be on every Dayton-area resident’s bucket list. Visit the statue of the boy and his dog and ask a groundskeeper about the story behind it, sit on the bench next to the Wright Brothers’ hats, climb the Bombeck boulder or drink a beer on Lookout Point. No matter how you choose to familiarize yourself with the grounds, it will be a positive experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
The Woodland Cemetery gates open daily at 8a.m. and close at 6p.m. during the winter and 7p.m. through summertime. The office is open Monday through Friday from8 a.m. to5 p.m. and Saturdays from 8a.m. to noon. For more information visit www.woodlandcemetery.com or call the office at (937)222-3211. They can also be found on Facebook and Find-A-Grave.
Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com.