Remembering Ronnie, in a place he loved

Back in 2015, I wrote this story about a wonderful young man, Ronnie Fersch, as I was so impressed how he went above and beyond caring for the historic, abandoned pioneer cemetery known as the Cashler/Union in York County. 

Five years ago today, he was tragically killed in an accident, and I have been thinking about him, as I’m sure many of his friends and family members are as well. All that said, I thought I’d just share this little story. I’d known Ronnie for 20 years, he’d been part of our family. I think about how funny he was, how his laugh was contagious and oddly creative his mind could be. And I can’t help but remember one nice quiet, summer afternoon we spent together . . . in a place he loved. 

The Cashler Cemetery is very quiet.

It has been that way for nearly 140 years.

There’s the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, vehicles passing by on nearby Interstate 80, an occasional chirp from a bird . . . and numerous times during the summer there’s the sound of Ron Fersch’s lawnmower.

In 1876, the first graves were dug in this tiny cemetery.

Over the course of time, there would be approximately 35 people buried there. Of the 35 — 21 were children.

Pioneer women grieved their little ones in this place – many of the deceased only several months old, some as old as 11, as seen in the etchings of the gravestones.

And they probably hoped that someone would care for this special place, long after they were gone.

Now, in 2015, that person is Fersch, and he takes his job very seriously.

The Cashler Cemetery (also referred to as the Union Cemetery, as the founder George Cashler transferred the deed from his name to the Union name in 1879) is located on the Seward/York County line.

A decade ago, York County Commissioners decided to accept responsibility for the cemetery, as it had become abandoned.

And five years ago, Fersch was hired to mow the cemetery at least twice a year.

Doing business as Cutting Edge Lawn Service, Fersch does all types of jobs for private homeowners and local businesses.

This job at Cashler was certainly different than the others, he said.

Over the years, he’s come to realize the existence of graves never noticed before.

And he’s also become aware of more than hanging tree limbs and the rust on the old gate.

“You know, when you are out here by yourself, you start to realize that you are caring for the legacy of those people’s children, from so many years ago,” Fersch said. “You read the stones, you think about those kids dying so young, so long ago. And not only do you feel like you are taking care of someone’s memory, you are almost helping to preserve history.”

Walking among the graves, Fersch points out some of those from the 1870s – those of Paul Cashler, 11, who died Jan. 25, 1871; Charley A. McManigal, two months old, who died Nov. 28, 1871; Jodd Wray, two months old, who died Dec. 17, 1877; John Wray, 56, who died Dec. 17, 1874; Baby Peterson, four days old, who died July 6, 1876; Carrie Norton, age unknown, who died Oct. 19, 1877; George McManigal, seven months old, who died Aug. 16, 1878.

Sitting on his mower, he’s seen the names many times.

And while on that mower, he started to see that some of the very old stone markers at those graves were in need of repair.

So he reached out to Commissioner Kurt Bulgrin, asking for permission to do the necessary stone work, as he is only contracted to do the lawn care.

This past week, Bulgrin brought the matter to the commissioners. “Ron has been maintaining the cemetery and he noticed some stones falling over, some settling way into the ground. He takes pride in his work and he wanted to know if he could just take care of it. He already contacted a monument company as to what to do, so these stones will last a long time.”

“I think we should let him do that,” said Commissioner Bill Bamesberger.

The other commissioners agreed.

So on Tuesday, Fersch – armed with a trailer of dirt, a shovel, industrial adhesive and other tools – went to the cemetery.

He pointed out one old stone which had been originally laid on top of the ground. But over the past 140 years or so, it settled so far into the ground, Fersch hadn’t even noticed it was there.

“I mowed out here for five years and never even saw it,” Fersch said, dusting away dirt from the faint words carved so long ago. “I happened to step wrong right here a couple of weeks ago and when I did, I realized this stone was here, sunken deep into the dirt. I don’t even know how big it actually is.”

With his shovel, he carefully carved out the dirt around it, uncovering a large stone measuring about 2 ½ feet by three feet. He lifted the heavy stone out of the space, filled in the hole with dirt and placed the stone back on top of the surface where it belonged.

“Wow, now you can see what it actually says,” Fersch said, rubbing the stone to get rid of the excess dirt.

In the strong summer sunlight, a set of praying hands could be seen – an etching done by an artist so many years ago.

“It’s amazing to me that these stones look as good as they do, considering someone made them back in the day when there was nothing here, tools weren’t even remotely what we have now and things were so much harder,” Fersch said.

With the grass mowed, tree limbs loaded onto the trailer and the stones fixed, Fersch drove through the old iron gates.

“I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to mow again,” he said. “That way I can keep up with it and it always looks nice. You know, if those people, back in the old days, took so much care to make sure these people, these kids, were remembered . . . don’t we have that obligation too?”

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