Former graveyard lies beneath old Sharon mansions

Oct. 28—SHARON — Along West State Street a block of late-19th Century mansions overlooks downtown Sharon.

Beneath their ornate, restored exteriors, most have been converted into apartments. What many people don't know is that they land beneath them was converted from another use, too: it once was a cemetery.

Some say a few former tenants never moved out.

"I've never experienced anything strange, but I've heard from a few people who have," said Taylor Galaska, who is a Sharon city councilman, president of the Sharon Historical Society and one of the tenants of 333 W. State St.

The area in question stretches along the south side of West State Street from the First Baptist Church to Logan Avenue, and for a block south to A Streets.

According to the Sharon Historical Society, in 1807 pioneer William Budd gave the local Baptists land for a church and graveyard on the south side of West State Street. He later gave the Methodists adjoining property, and the area became the town's burial ground.

"That was pretty common back then, because people would have the graveyards attached to wherever the local churches were," Galaska said.

Dr. J.M. Irvine, a prominent physician in down who lived south of the cemetery, was a co-founder of Oakwood Cemetery across town in 1866.

Afterward, Irvine campaigned for the state legislature to allow Sharon to ban cemeteries within city limits in 1868 — hence, why Oakwood's office is technically a Sharon address, while the cemetery itself is within Hermitage.

The bodies and gravestones on the West Hill were relocated to the new cemetery, at a time when most people were buried in a pine box and possibly a shroud.

The quality of the coffins, along with the natural decomposition that would take place over 60 or 70 years, meant that many remains — or at least pieces — may not have been completely recovered, Galaska said.

"If you go to Oakwood Cemetery now, it says that all 700 bodies were relocated," Galaska said. "But if you go to the West Hill section of Oakwood, there's maybe 100 gravestones there."

Regardless of how thorough the relocation efforts were, the newly vacant land on the West Hill was soon developed into housing, leading to the many mansions that are still standing today.

Almost all of the houses were uniquely built, which was due to a range of factors.

Sometimes the house's construction depended on the patriarch's profession, such as a lumberyard owner or brick worker using lumber or bricks, respectively. Other times, homeowners could purchase "house kits" from different retailers, Galaska said.

Other times, it depended on the needs and size of a particular family. Further changes were made to the homes over the years. Many became multi-unit apartments, further adding to the uniqueness of each house.

Galaska's building was constructed as a single-family home about 1883 but now houses multiple tenants.

"There's times where a house may have the second floor divided up into different rooms with connecting doors because it was supposed to be bedrooms for one family, but now one room might be a bathroom and another might be a kitchen," he said.

One of the many residents who grew up on the West Hill is Lynne Bresnahan, formerly Lynne Cwynar, now 63 and living in Transfer.

Lynne's parents bought the home at 371 W. State St. in 1954, and she was born in 1960. Brickmaker James V. Rose built two-story, brick house with its turret in the mid-1880s.

As a child, Lynne said her family lived downstairs while renting out the second floor to other families.

"What a fantastic neighborhood to grow up in," Lynne said. "We'd ride our bikes around the house and play with other kids in the yard. It was a nice area."

Although life for the Cwynar family was relatively normal on the first floor, Lynne said families living on the second floor often reported seeing a ghostly "lady in blue."

Occasionally, renters would awaken in the middle of the night and see the lady in blue standing over their bed. If the second floor was vacant, Lynne and her family would hear footsteps.

In some cases, people outside the house would even see the lady in blue looking out the attic window.

"Mom always said she was a friendly ghost, we never had anything bad happen," Lynne said.

Starting when she was 11 years old, Lynne sometimes babysat at a house a few buildings down the street, and noticed one of the houses had a couple small brick headstones in the front of the property — one of the few indicators of the area's graveyard past.

"When you're little, you notice things but you don't really think about them," she said.

The Cwynar family eventually moved out of their West State Street home in 1982 and into a home in Transfer. Afterward, Lynne purchased the house next door in 1988, where she lives today.

Lynne never experienced anything paranormal herself after the family moved to Transfer, although she did have a relative who claimed to see the lady in blue while temporarily staying at Lynne's home around 1997 or 1998.

"They were about 12, and one night they said they saw a lady in a blue gown looking in our front window," Lynne said.

Galaska said he himself has never had any strange experiences in his apartment, but tenants who rent the second-story apartments have allegedly seen and heard things.

"I've never had anything happen on my floor — which is fine with me," Galaska said.

Many of the properties in the former graveyard area are owned by Tom Misko and his wife Patti.

Misko bought the first property — Galaska's building — in 1979 and rented it out, and continued to purchase other properties over the years. He now owns all the houses facing West State on the old graveyard site.

While he performs maintenance and renovations on the properties to make them proper rental units, Misko said he likes to retain the architectural history of the buildings as much as possible.

"They're nice houses, and they're very historically authentic," Misko said. "I hate seeing old, nice houses get torn down. When they tore the Boyd House down that used to be on Euclid Avenue and State street, that broke my heart."

Misko has never experienced anything paranormal while renovating the homes, but has found more than a few strange things over the years.

Some discoveries were smaller items, such as whiskey or elixir bottles stashed "everywhere."

One discovery in particular in the Italianate-styled, brick Samuel DeForeest house on the corner southwest corner with Logan Avenue: A 30-foot-deep well under the enclosed back porch.

"They had a hand-dug well in the back yard, and they did a remodel at some point and extended the back of the house so that the well was now in the porch," Misko said.

Galaska credited Misko for his desire to retain the houses' historical significance, and for making his properties available for Sharon Historical Society activities over the years.

Lynne herself had a chance to visit her old neighborhood during one of the history walks organized by the society, where she learned some of the area's history before it was covered in houses.

"When I found out there used to be a cemetery there, I thought, 'this all makes sense,'" she said. "I wasn't really surprised, I thought it was neat."

Like Galaska, Lynne said she was glad to see the Miskos' efforts to preserve the neighborhood, both for future residents and to keep some of the history alive.

"It takes a lot of work to do that, and I'm glad to see those houses lived in instead of torn down," she said.

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