Saturday, May 28, 2022

Black Swamp Cemetery and Annie Oakely

Community mausoleum, Black Swamp Cemetery

Back in early April 2022, I flew to Versailles on business. Not France, unfortunately, but Ohio. Where they pronounce it “Ver-SALES.” Private jet, strictly a one-nighter, no time for cemetery travel. Bummer. The real kicker is that the factory I was visiting had a cemetery right behind it, Black Swamp Cemetery, though I would have no opportunity to visit. The overnight accommodations were in a fancy lodge type deal a few miles away, so I couldn’t even get to the cemetery on my very little time off. Sigh. 

Cemetery enthusiasts have been in this situation many times – they drive by an interesting graveyard, and are not able to stop. Pining for the grave. The photos you see here, actually, are photos of Black Swamp Cemetery in Versailles, Ohio, the main one that I didn’t get to visit. I snapped these out the van window as our small group was en route to the lodge after leaving the factory tour on the day of our arrival. 

Versailles is a small mid-Western town surrounded by thousands of acres of cornfields. Old Victorian-era downtown buildings and old wooden houses. Another cemetery I didn’t get to visit is just outside Versailles in Greenville - Brock Cemetery, where Annie Oakley is buried. Super bummed about that. 

The lodge where we stayed outside Versailles was creepy, though, so the trip was interesting in that regard. An absolutely vacant, private lodge owned by this company to board its short-term guests during factory visits. There were six of us in our party, and we were the only guests. There was no check-in desk, no personnel. We were each shown by the van driver to a private suite on various levels of the building. It was cold outside, the lake behind the building was being rained on. The doors to the rooms had no locks. Weird.

The huge dining area was empty – oddly, there was an acoustic guitar on a stand off to the side of the room. I asked if there was going to be entertainment later. Our driver pointed out, that no, anyone can pick it up and play. Again, weird.

As we were being led around to our rooms (hopefully not our final resting places), I felt like we were in the hotel from the movie, “The Shining.” I dumped my stuff in room 13 – a ground-level room with a private door out to the lake – perfect access for the madman to gain entry to my room in the night. Our driver said dinner would be served at 7 pm and there was an open bar. Shortly, I headed up to the bar, hoping that it was not us on the menu.

Turned out to be a completely unattended fully-stocked hotel-style bar, that was, well, open. You just went behind the bar and helped yourself. Truly fine choice of bourbons, I must say. We gathered there for an hour, in the emptiness, wondering where the dinner would come from. I went over and grabbed the guitar, slid the capo up the neck and played “Here Comes the Sun” to dispel the gloom.

At 7, the kitchen opened and a chef with full crew began serving a fine five-course meal. Truly sumptuous. Afterwards, a few drinks and off to bed - fattened up, hoping I would actually wake up alive in the morning.

A random lake in Ohio, outside my room, in the bleak dawn.

Which I did, and strolled out into the dawn to shoot a few photos of the still lake. Got Wordle in four tries. We packed, were fed breakfast, then were picked up and taken to the factory for the second half of the tour. Lunch and then back to the little Darke County Airport in Versailles and the trip home (you’ll agree, I’m sure, that “Darke County” is a great name!). We didn’t even get to fly over a cemetery at take off.

We cracked open a bottle of champagne at altitude, nibbling fresh fruit. Here’s my cup and the book I was appropriately reading during this whirlwind of a trip, William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive. The flight was only about forty minutes between Darke County Airport and Philly International. And I have to say – don’t ever feel sorry for those rock stars touring across the country in a private jet. There’s no baggage claim, TSA, fighting over masks, stowing luggage, barf bags. Just hop on, have a chat with your mates, and get off at the next stop. 

My next business trip, to San Antonio, Texas, will definitely include a planned cemetery excursion. Planning is good. Hell, when Mott the Hoople toured the U.S. for the first time, maybe in 1973, the band planned all their free time hitting pawn shops looking for cool guitars. That is where Ian Hunter, according to his autobiography (Diary of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star), found that weird “H” shaped electric guitar he played – I always thought it was custom made for him. As Space Ghost says, you gotta make your own fun.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Old Tennent Church and Graveyard

While procursive behavior can potentially lead to defenestration, running to the cat lady posed no such issue. When our informal tour guides led us to her final resting place in the graveyard at Old Tennent Church in Tennent, New Jersey, I just had all these catastrophic thoughts going through my head. I could not help but think of Mark Twain’s cat story, “A Cat Tale,” in which he composes a bedtime story for his young daughters based on words beginning with “cat.” They would pick a word from the dictionary, and he would use it in the fictitious story, even if he did not know its meaning. Then the daughters would catch him in his fib and make him alter the story to make the word fit into the story! I actually know the meaning of the two five-dollar words in the first sentence, by the way.

Cat Lady

Old Tennent resides in Manalapan Township in Central New Jersey (my Jersey-native neighbors can actually pronounce “Manalapan”). This is near Freehold, which I suppose is where Bruce Springsteen’s ranch is – I probably drove past it on the way. 

Zinc memorial marking family plot
I don’t know the story of the woman who has cat reliefs carved in her granite memorial, it was just our first stop on our wonderful spring walk through a colonial-era graveyard. There was so much more to see – the old church which was built in 1753 (, the death’s head soul effigy gravemarkers, the mausoleums, and so on. The Old Tennent graveyard was established in 1731, and is STILL an active cemetery, i.e., there are still new burials. 

Old Tennent Presbyterian Church, Tennent, New Jersey
The property is quite large, and the grave markers are arranged in sort of a timeline, with the oldest around the church, and branching out by era (and that era's symbolism) as the stones appear to orbit the church. The newest stones are in the outermost orbit. There are even a few zinc, or "white bronze" markers to be found near the church (these were popular from the late 1800s until about 1930).

"Starfish" angel soul effigy?
Most fascinating for me were the soul effigy brownstone carved stones. I had never seen so many in one place – there were dozens. Most seemed to be carved by two or three carvers, as the styles were all quite similar. The state of preservation of most of these stones is intriguing. Some have lichens growing on them, but are for the most part in great condition. There is a caretaker of the graveyard, and that person obviously does a wonderful job. Simply keeping the grass cut between all these stones and monuments is, well, a monumental task!

I must mention the reason I was here in the first place. Some friends who are part of the Instagram Cemetery Meetup group we formed last year live in the area and have suggested we all meet there for a walking tour. The group has done this about six times so far, congregating in various cemeteries between Philadelphia and Perth Amboy, New Jersey. About fourteen of us met on this sunny spring Sunday in Tennent – one of the largest attendances we’ve had. There are about twenty people who are part of the group and maybe ten on average will attend a meetup.

Some members of our meetup group outside church

We had hoped, as our guide had planned, to see the inside of the church. We arrived as a service was letting out and we asked if we could go inside. The people in the church politely declined, so we went about the grounds exploring and photographing. I made these group photos with my iPhone 12 on self-timer. I also brought my new old camera, a forty-year-old Leica R4 35mm film camera, which I needed to test before the warranty expired. A few members of our group graciously posed for photo portraits, as I wanted to test out the camera’s (with Leica 28-70mm f3.5 lens) ability to capture humans, which I have seen can be done with astounding crispness on a shallow depth of field.

Someone asked me how the camera has been performing, and I said, “I’ll let you know in a week when I get the film back.” I don’t photograph live people, generally, so the results will also reflect my paucity of skill in that regard. I say “live” people, because I intend to visit the dead as well at Saint John Neumann church in Philadelphia soon. One of our group mentioned that in addition to his headless corpse which is preserved in state behind glass under the altar at this national shrine in Philadelphia  (, they’ve also put on display Neumann’s personal collection of saint’s skulls. I mean, what’s not to like there?! Oh, and if you go, this IS the place “where prayers are answered” (

A bit later, I was surprised to see members of our group filing into Old Tennent church! It seemed that our guide somehow convinced one of the church volunteers to not only let us in, but to also give us a half-hour tour! This was wonderfully educational and totally appreciated by everyone. The old wooden structure has been kept in fine shape, inside and out. The subscription pew boxes are labelled with small bronze plaques indicating the name of the person or family who pays “rent” on the box. 

Notch in church pew caused by saw used in amputation

The church had been used as a hospital for the American army (led by General George Washington himself) during the Battle of Monmouth, which was fought on the hill opposite the graveyard on June 28, 1778. As you would expect, then, there are many Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Old Tennent. Our guide pointed out blood stains on a wooden pew seat and another pew with a notch in it’s seat – supposedly this was made by a saw as a soldier’s leg was being amputated.

So that’s all very sobering, right? There was also a display case with cannonballs, rifle shot, and other historic memorabilia from the local battle. The Monmouth fight was pivotal in Washington’s career, as he, personally, along with his army, successfully drove the British farther from Philadelphia (which the British had occupied), a victory which prompted people to begin describing Washington as the Father of Our Country (

After our tour of the church, our group continued its exploration of the grounds. We all posed for a group photo (again, taken with my iPhone 12) in front of a mausoleum. I’ve noticed that many members of the group sport great T-shirts and other items of clothing which serve as an effective starting point to begin a conversation with someone you’ve only ever met on Instagram! The social media platform is being used to create and nurture actual social in-person relationships. I look forward to our next planned meetup, which may be around Elizabeth or Newark, New Jersey. Our friends (and we truly have all become friends) from that area are anxious to show us two cemeteries that boast even more gravemarkers with angel and death’s head soul effigy carvings. 

In parting, let me just say that it always pays to look inside mausoleums. You can see some amazing stained glass, or even engraved crypt covers such as the one you see below. Seriously, would you ADVERTISE that you were a descendant of witch burners Cotton and Increase Mather? This Puritan clergy father/son duo was responsible in large part for the witch hunts and resulting murders in New England during the late 1600s. But seriously, if it hadn’t been for the Salem Witch Trials, how would we ever have known that witches can’t swim? Turns out that the Monty Python witch trial scene from the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” was a fairly accurate depiction of how skewed this Puritanical logic was ( As an aside, “Cotton Mather” is also the name of a pretty cool power pop band.