March 2008 Issue
The beauty of Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery spans the seasons.
Mention you’re heading to Spring Grove Cemetery and some people might assume you’re fulfilling a familial duty or indulging a ghoulish bent. But insiders suspect you’re a fan of history, horticulture or architecture, off to delve into one of America’s richest multi-faceted National Historic Landmarks.
At Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum, there are genealogies to trace, National Champion trees to admire and mausoleums to photograph. Each turn along the 35 miles of looping roadway reveals a new sculpture or building, a fresh glimpse of wildlife or landscape. For first-timers, it’s a good thing the speed limit is 20 miles per hour — and still it’s too fast to savor every bud, every bird.
Better to park and start walking — armed, of course, with a trusty map. For Spring Grove, the second-largest nonprofit cemetery in the U.S., has 733 acres, 400 of which are manicured and ready for exploration. Locals who’ve been coming here all their lives, season in, season out, still don’t know every nook.
It began simply enough, when the Cincinnati Horticultural Society formed the Cemetery Association in 1844 and studied cemeteries in America and Europe for inspiration. Spring Grove’s 1845 charter created the world’s first naturalistic “lawn plan cemetery” during the heyday of the Rural Cemetery Movement, which placed burial grounds on the outskirts of burgeoning American cities.
Adolph Strauch, superintendent for 28 years, said a rural cemetery “should form the most interesting of all places for contemplative recreation; and everything in it should be tasteful, classical and poetical.” A Prussian by birth, Strauch arrived in Cincinnati for a day’s visit in 1852, missed his train and stayed a lifetime. His vision guided thousands of poetical plantings to achieve “the solemnizing influence of a deep forest.” Today, Strauch rests on a small island among a string of lakes he carved from Spring Grove’s wetlands.
Strauch guided Spring Grove toward the landmark arboretum it is today, adding farmland to the original 166 acres and ordering trees from around the world. By the 1860s, only New York’s Central Park had more arboreal diversity. Strauch wove his exotic finds into serene vistas up and down the twisting knolls.
But Victorians will have their decorative arts, right up to — and beyond — the end. The 19th-century fascination with Egypt plays out in memorial pyramids and obelisks — even a sphinx. Stone goddesses and mortal widows weep, and in one heartbreaking vignette, a statuary dog, broken chain in his paw, watches over his 7-year-old master in perpetuity.
Cincinnati has at least 227 cemeteries: It’s not for nothing that the American Cemetery Association was founded at Spring Grove in 1887. And for seven generations, Spring Grove has been the best last address in town.
It enfolds the resting places of two sets of presidential parents, the Grants and the Tafts, of nine Ohio governors, and of 40 Union generals from the Civil War, including Spring Grove’s highest-ranked, “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Plus scores of empire builders: William Procter and James Gamble of Procter & Gamble; Barney Kroger, legendary grocer; Christian Moerlein, beer baron; Charles Fleischmann, yeast and beer mogul; and Marion Rombauer Becker, author of The Joy of Cooking. And don’t forget Cincinnati’s first millionaire and America’s second-richest man at his death, Nicholas Longworth.
What it doesn’t have, however, are good, juicy ghost stories. Sure, there’s Mr. Breuer’s bust in Section 100, he with the glass eyes said to glow red at night. But surely there must be more than this in 773 acres and 163 years?
Nagged by the cemetery’s lack of spirit, Phillip Nuxhall, Spring Grove’s historian and tour coordinator, decided to go ghost hunting. “I got the head groundskeeper who’d been there the longest and we went sleuthing. We went all over, and I said ‘Surely you’ve had ghostly experiences in all these years?’
“There was a long pause. Then he finally said, ‘Phil, we don’t have ghost stories. Everybody’s happy to be here.’”
Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum,
4521 Spring Grove Ave., 513/681-7526, 888/853-2230;
Spring Grove arboretum, with 1,000 of its 1,200 species labeled for study, is a four-season landscape. In spring, tulip borders undulate along the drives, and weeping cherries, viburnum, azaleas, the State Champion American fringe tree and Spring Grove’s patented dogwood are in full bloom. The Spring Walking Tour, “History in Bloom,” will be April 20.
Each summer, the hibiscus, crape myrtle, September Goldenrain and Japanese Pagoda tree shine. The Summer Concert Series starts June 25; Twilight Tours run April–September. The Light of the Moon tour is Aug. 16.
In fall, gingko trees turn amber and red maples glow crimson. Common witch hazel and Autumn-Flowering Higan Cherry bloom in late November. In a version of the Asian Obon ceremony, visitors will gather Sept. 13 to light lanterns, representing the souls of the dead, and float them across the lakes.
In winter, dark branches etch their own stark beauty, while the hollies hold their cheerful green and red and snow falls on the Civil War cannon. Winter Aconite blooms deep yellow in mid-February, accompanied by crocus and snowdrops. Alders, birches, baldcypresses and filberts bloom in early March.