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Team of Lycoming College students examines history in detail at Wildwood Cemetery

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Jennifer Swatsworth, project manager, Lumber Hertitage Region; Caleb Hipple, intern; Laura Ulrich, intern, Sadie Blossons, intern, and Holly komunczi, executive director Lumber Heritage Region, and Thad Meckley, from left ot right, talk about the rich history of the Wildoowd Cemetery in Williamsport.

The history of Williamsport is coming alive this summer as three students in the Lycoming College’s Williamsport Internship Summer Experience (WISE) program research people who played a significant role in the life of this community and are now interred at Wildwood Cemetery.

Some are familiar names, lumber barons and owners of businesses that supported the residents of Williamsport during a time of prosperity derived from the lumber industry. Other names are of people who are woven into the tapestry of Williamsport’s past and may not be familiar — although their contributions are no less significant. When the names and their stories are compiled by the students, tours will be developed so that everyone can join the journey through the city’s history.

The plan originally was for the interns to research the people buried at Wildwood Cemetery, which was first established in 1863, in order to contact family members so that the plots could be cared for. If there was a tree stump that needed removed or pavement near the burial site that needed repair, funding could be sought. The scope of the project has since expanded to include developing stories and tours related to the specific people buried in the 350-acre cemetery.

Caleb Hipple, of Montgomery, a junior creative writing major, has taken on the responsibility of updating the cemetery’s website. Laura Ulrich, from Elimsport, a sophomore political science major, is primarily researching names and sorting them into groups, such as lumber barons and lumber-related people.

At the time of the interview, the interns had identified 130 lumber barons, which is the largest of the eight categories they have compiled. Others include influential sports figures, people in arts and music a Black history tour, a Jewish community tour, a Lycoming College leaders tour for anyone who has donated money or influenced Lycoming College and a women of Williamsport tour, a least for now.

“Every day we come in and find something new,” said Sadie Bossons, a junior from Easton majoring in theater and another member of the team of interns.

The students revealed that one of the most interesting stories they have uncovered was about a man named Itaro Kono.

Kono was an immigrant from Japan who came to America during the late 1800s. First he went to Washington state near Seattle.

“He established the first dojo in North America,” said Ulrich. “After he did that he traveled with P.T. Barnum in his circus and performed martial arts.”

“He ended up in Williamsport on the tour, but he became very ill. They believe it was with some form of facial cancer,” she continued. “They were trying to remove it with surgery and it didn’t work out well.”

Because Kono could not perform due to his illness, the circus moved on without him. He was left in Williamsport, unable to speak English and ill. He subsequently passed away and was buried in Wildwood’s poor grounds, where his story remained buried with him until now.

“So that’s one of our more unique, unbelievable stories, where it’s like, how did he end up here? You find this whole story and it’s kind of tragic, but it’s also like, well, I’m glad that we now know that,” Ulrich said.

The poor grounds are in a section at the east side of the cemetery, a steep uphill section where Hipple said “back in the day there were people of color or just poor people in general were buried there.”

“They wouldn’t be given fancy headstones, if a headstone at all,” he said.

Kono did not have a headstone, but the interns uncovered his story through researching in books and a data base. In the poor grounds database, people who were being buried were either designated as w for white and b for black.

“At some point they stopped doing that,” Bossons said. “He is the only one in there with a J for Japanese.”

“It was a really interesting find that we had to develop and he’s going to be on our sports tour,” Ulrich said.

Of the over 70,000 people buried in Wildwood Cemetery, only about 100 are buried in the poor grounds.

Other interesting facts garnered through the interns’ research include discovering the burial site of the woman for whom the borough of Avis was named. She was the wife of James Henry Cochran who had served as a state senator and was prominent in the lumber business in the city. Cochran is also buried in the cemetery.

“He was very prominent in government and he had the ability and the notion to name that for her,” Ulrich said.

“I guess you could say with our stories that we’re developing is to one, publish them on Facebook as kind of a teaser for people to come and visit and to just see how expansive our cemetery is, but also developing tours,” Ulrich said.

“Eventually we would like to host and give tours or provide self-guided ones so that you can learn more about not only the history of Williamsport, but also the significance of the cemetery and its vastness and the people that it holds. Just preserving their memory and giving a good historical experience,” she added.

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