History Of the 1918 Mass Graves in Winfield Township Butler County PA
The history in Winfield Township is indeed rich with Billy Smith's (driller on the first Drake Well) grave and Cooper's Cabin (one of the first cabins in the township) marked as historic sites. In 2002 the township gained another marked significant location. It is the gravesite of 1918 influenza victims. The mass graves were left basically unmarked until June 2002. These 1918 influenza victims were recent immigrants to West Winfield working in the various manufacturing and mining industries that were there at that time. They succumbed to the flu and died without church, organization or family affiliations that would ensure a proper burial. The county, state and none of the federal agencies would bury these victims. They were truly lost souls. The West Winfield companies united together sending crews of men with shovels to dig mass graves for the bodies.
It was imperative that the bodies be buried and decomposed quickly so that the virus could die off with them. The son of a wagon driver who hauled the bodies to the mass graves said his father told the story of at least twenty bodies to a grave. The son of the constable who supervised the hydrated liming of the bodies for quick decomposition verifies this number. No one seems to know though just how many mass graves there were before the virus ran its course in the spring of 1919.
Father O'Callahan from the St. John's Church in Coylesville was troubled that these victims had been dumped in mass graves without a burial service. He commissioned Joseph Baldauf to make a cross. Joseph and a Mr. McCrea made the cross with railroad ties, which lasted a very long time. Father O'Callahan then performed the Catholic burial rights over the graves with Mr. McCrea, Joseph Bauldauf and Joseph’s young grandson Harry Snyder as the only mourners.
These victims lay unnoticed for 84 years in their silent graves except for teenagers seeking ghoulish thrills. Although many in the community had lobbied the state to mark this “Wooden Cross Cemetery” it was not until the GFWC Saxonburg District Woman’s Club spearheaded by Doris Herceg as Chair of the Club’s Community Improvement Program and Drenda Gostkowski as the designated Pennsylvania Humanities Scholar marked the site. The activities surrounding the site's recognition were twofold. Drenda Gostkowski first presented a lecture at the Saxonburg Area Library to provide and acquire history on the old cemetery. This lecture included a movie and time was allotted for the audience to ask questions and give their own personal history about the site. A $500.00 Pennsylvania Humanities Council quick grant helped finance this program. 65 people participated, more than any Saxonburg Area Library lecture had ever attracted.
During part two Doris Herceg was the spokesperson that officiated the two services held the day of the dedication. Father Valerian M. Michlik and Janet Pazzynski of St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on the North side of Pittsburgh canted a Greek Catholic service. This was chosen in deference to the victim's Eastern European roots. Pastor Wayne Gillespie from St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Saxonburg held a service respecting the Western Christianity tradition of Woman's Club members. A 1918 survivor Walter Petsinger placed a wreath on the old wooden cross while “Amazing Grace” rang throughout the woods with the flute of Sara Bennett complementing the voices of Peter Watt and Janet Pazzynski. In attendance were over 120 local folks who had long waited to see the site marked, state, county and township elected officials and at the very least 2 million cicadas.
The site owned by the Armstrong Cement and Supply Company has been marked in two ways. The remains of the original "Wooden Cross" were found and a cement, silver, granite cross was positioned beside it. A large metal roadside marker was erected on the corner of Sasse and Cornetti Roads to alert motorist as to the location. The Woman’s Club solicited the help of 4 men Peter Watt, Tom Piepers, John and Dan Bacon to cement both of these markers into the ground. Currently the site lays in its peaceful wooded lot where many people visit and some leave behind additional mementos. To date two extra wreaths, a third cross, an angel medal and five river stones have been left by the folks who come to show their respect to these men who never had a chance to reap the benefits of a new life in America “on the streets paved with gold.”
The Butler County Tourism Bureau lists this site as a “Butler County Historical Site” It becomes important in today’s world that is threatened with a pandemic similar to the one in 1918 and caused by a comparable situation of an avian virus jumping from birds to humans generating a virus so virile that it is almost unstoppable. Certainly it was unstoppable in 1918 where world wide over 30 million people died. The mass graves are now a place of contemplation and the souls that lay there are at peace.