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The Stories Behind the Stones

Annual cemetery tour is today with ‘Year of the Glove’ theme

Reenactor Peter Zemken of Gloversville explains the experience of Marvin Hillabrandt (1831-1906), a Civil War Union sniper, in Johnstown Cemetery last year during the annual historical tour by the Johnstown Historical Society. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

JOHNSTOWN — Ever visit a cemetery and see a headstone that intrigues you and wonder who that person was and what was their story?

As part time groundskeeper for the Johnstown Cemetery, Chris Simek did and that curiosity led to her learning many of the stories behind the stones about the people buried in the 170-year-old cemetery.

“You look at the stones and you wonder about them,” said Simek. “You wonder about the people and what they did and who they were.”

She wanted to know the stories behind the stones.

As she weed whacked between stones, Simek would see something on a headstone that fascinated her and she would reach out to her daughter for help.

Johnstown funeral director Brian Barnett points to a sketch of a bell system used in the 19th century in case a person was buried alive. He was the reenactor at the grave of undertaker Barney Vosburgh (1843-1890) in Johnstown Cemetery Saturday during the annual historical tour by the Johnstown Historical Society. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

“I would call her and ask her to run to the library and look up somebody,” said Simek, whose knowledge of the people buried there is vast.

She soon realized she wanted to share the fascinating stories she was learning about the “residents” of the cemetery with others, so she reached out to the Johnstown Historical Society to see if the organization was interested in conducting tours with actors playing parts of some of the people who are buried in the 58-acre cemetery and the “Stories Behind The Stones” cemetery tour was born. Today at 1 p.m. will be the latest tour.

“It started about 2015,” said Simek, who arranges for the actors, who are dressed in period-appropriate clothing, and helps write the scripts. “I went to the historical society to see if they would do a tour and they agreed.”

Noel Levee, past president of the historical society, participates as an actor in each of the tours. He said he enjoys the adventure and the questions people ask.

“When [the tour participants] see Noel, they ask him questions just like he is that person,” said Simek.

Johnstown Historian Noel Levee poses next to the monument for the McNab family. Noel will be playing the part of John McNab during the "Stories Behind the Stones" cemetery tour today at 1 p.m. at the Johnstown Cemetery. (The Leader-Herald/Patricia Older)

“The people ask some very interesting and great questions,” said Levee, who will be portraying John McNab, a Gloversville native who made his fortune selling his gloves “out West.”

“They made a lot of money that way,” said Simek.

As part of the tour, the guides will take small groups out to various headstones, monuments and mausoleums in the cemetery, focusing this year on glove and leather makers. Tours start at 1 p.m. with two groups; another two groups at 1:15 p.m.; and the last two groups at 1:30 p.m. The individual tours last approximately 90 minutes each.

“We are staying in the theme ‘The Year of the Glove,'” said Simek, referring to Fulton County’s historian’s focus this year.

Each tour guide will stop at the various gravesites and give a little economic information about the individual glove or leather maker, the part they played in the region’s history, and some interesting, little-known facts of their lives.

The headstone for Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Balch is seen on Wednesday. (The Leader-Herald/Patricia Older)

For example, MacNab died at 86 years of age after mistaking a poison for cold medicine and accidentally drinking it.

“McNab ingested carbonic acid by mistake and it killed him,” said Simek. “It was a very painful death.”

Simek explained that many of the gravesites belong to ordinary citizens in and around Johnstown involved in the leather and glove industry.

“There were so many that held little leather shops around Johnstown,” said Simek, noting that many of the families have tidbits of history unknown to the lay person.

And then there were the bigger industrialists, such as the Evans family.

“Theirs is a sad story,” said Simek, explaining that one of the brothers, Robert Evans, had passed away and his son was set to inherit his fortune.

“His son was due to inherit his money and he went out on Canada Lake in a boat,” said Simek, pointing out the tall monument with names inscribed on each side shortly after entering the cemetery.

“There were so many rumors about him when he disappeared. There were reported sightings of him all over, even in New Jersey,” said Simek.

Unfortunately, she said, after officials used equipment to drag the lake, using dynamite to try and dislodge any bodies, and eventually draining some of the lake, the young man’s boat and body were found, along with the body of the young woman with him.

Simek said the cemetery is the resting place of many notable people including famous authors, the inventor of dental tools and even a Revolutionary War soldier –Joseph Blach.

The Knox family has a mausoleum with stained glass windows, the Kennedy family stone is the tallest and “allegedly broke as it was transported over the bridge,” and there is a gravesite for a World War II veteran who was “lost at sea.”

“They told all the families that the men were lost at sea, but the Germans actually destroyed and sunk their ship,” said Simek. “The government didn’t want anyone to know that, so they told them the men were lost at sea.” She also pointed out the gravesite of Edward Yost, who worked for the Hays and Wells Bank, also big names in the leather industry.

“He was living in the back room of the bank and someone came in and shot him,” said Simek, noting that the man’s wallet and other possessions were stolen at the time.

His wallet, she said, somehow ended up in the possession of the historical society.

“You have to wonder how that happened,” said Simek, who noted today’s tour will have 52 stops along the way.

“We try to give them as much information as possible,” said Semik, who said the tour wraps up with the Card family.

“They are probably the easiest to relate to,” said Simek, noting that the family was involved in the leather industry until the early 1980s. “No tour is complete without the Card family — they started in gloves and ended up in leather and their business probably went until the early 80s.”

If you go:

The Johnstown Cemetery is located at 114 N. Perry St., across from Washington Street. Costumed guides will lead tour groups down winding roads dotted with elaborate headstones and the past will come alive as actors introduce themselves as notable former residents.

This year, in celebration of “The Year of the Glove,” the tour will feature many leather and glove-making business people who were instrumental in shaping the city of Johnstown and beyond. Information boards with historical facts will mark the path. The cost for the tour is $10 and it is suggested participants wear shoes suitable for walking on earthen terrain.

Children younger than 12 are free.

A raindate of Sept. 22 has been set.

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