This week, I’m starting a new series on Dayton, Ohio’s Woodland Cemetery. It’s going to be a bit different because Woodland is the first cemetery I ever visited and have returned to many times. You’re going to hear some stories that I’ve not shared with many people before. Unlike most of my initial posts, this one is not about Woodland’s history. I’ll get to that next week. Hopefully, you won’t mind this detour.
My family moved to Georgia when I was five. But every summer, we would return to Dayton to visit family and go to places that were familiar to my parents. Woodland Cemetery was one of them.I remember we always entered at the back gate off Wayne Avenue because it was the closest entrance to where we were going. In fact, I didn’t even see Woodland’s front gates until maybe 10 years ago because of that.
The concept of a cemetery was foreign to my childish mind. I only knew I liked seeing the trees, the pond and especially the swans that lived there. It may have sparked my life-long love of swans, I’m not sure. But to me, it was a beautiful place. I don’t remember being afraid or feeling sad there.
To be honest, I didn’t know whose grave we were visiting when we came during those early years. Nobody would ever say and I was too confused to ask. I only knew that the woman’s marker we visited had my last name.
I would not know for many years that she was my father’s mother, Charlotte Grice Muller. She died on July 22, 1960 at the age of 44 after undergoing heart surgery. She suffered a serious stroke in 1955 when my father was in high school and her health deteriorated from that time forward. So much so that my father was sent to live with relatives and he graduated from a different high school.
I later learned that my grandmother’s death was so traumatic to my Dad that he never talked about it. His father, my grandfather, remarried less than a year later to a widow he knew from work, Wanda. She was the only grandmother I knew on that side of my family. She was always nice to me. But I never felt like a truly knew her.
Until I found a framed picture in a drawer of my grandfather sitting next to a woman I had never seen, I thought Wanda was my Dad’s mother. Maybe I was 10 or 12 by then. I gathered my courage and finally asked my Mom, “Who is this woman?”
“That’s Charlotte, your grandmother.”
At last I knew. When I asked why nobody had ever explained that to me, I was told, “We thought you knew.” I believe that. It wasn’t a secret they were actively keeping. Maybe they did tell me but my young mind couldn’t grasp it all. But there was still so much I didn’t know, so much was left unspoken.
It came out in bits and pieces over the next years and many confusing moments began to make more sense. Tense times that had confused me. Dad had adored his mother and her death pulled the rug out from under him. I’m not sure he ever got over it.
As a result, I knew little about my father’s family’s background. That led to my getting a membership to Ancestry.com after my son was born and later my interest in FindaGrave.com. Soon after, my blog was born and the rest is history. So a lot of what happened at Woodland on those visits was building a foundation for what was to come.
I wish I had known Charlotte. My mother has shared a few memories of her. That she was a fashionable, beautiful woman who enjoyed life and spoiling my father. She was also a straight shooter and was known to get excited while watching a boxing match on TV. The stroke left her a changed woman and her last years would be difficult ones.
Charlotte is no longer alone. My grandfather died in 1998 at the age of 81 and is buried beside her. My Aunt Suzie, who suffered from cerebral palsy from birth and spent most of her life in a group home, died in 2007 at the age of 60. When Wanda died in 2012, she was buried at Woodland with her first husband who had died in 1958. Their plot is in a different part of the cemetery.
Across the road next to the pond, Charlotte’s sister Esther is buried. She had the same history of heart trouble as her siblings. She died of a heart attack on Christmas Day in 1961 at the age of 51. She was my great uncle Eugene’s first wife and mother of my cousin Tom, whom I’ve always called my Uncle Tom. He’s always been something of a father figure to me and walked me down the aisle when I got married because my father was wheelchair bound by that time. He turned 81 this month and I love him dearly.
Tom’s father, Eugene, was not just my great uncle. He was a big-hearted giant of a man who earned the respect of everyone that met him. My Dad loved spending time with him and so did I. His second wife, Ruth, had no children of her own and they always spoiled us when we came down to visit them in Florida. She was a kind, classy lady who always had time for me. She died in 2019 and is buried at Woodland as well. I hope to visit her grave when next I visit.
Eugene was close with his brothers-in-law, Cliff and Harry, and my grandfather Carroll. This photo from 1939 was taken after the Ohio River flooded in Cincinnati. They all piled in a car and went to take a look for themselves.
Eugene passed away in 1983 from an embolism and we were heartbroken. It was totally unexpected and I remember sitting in my journalism class the next day crying. Even as a teenager, I knew someone truly good had left this world and it would never be the same without him.
One relative whose grave at Woodland I had never visited was my great-grandfather Bernard. He was another person I knew little about. He and my great-grandmother, Helen, divorced in 1938 and he remarried a few months later. I know that he was a carpenter who worked for the Dayton Wright Airplane Company in the 1910s (yes, the Wright brothers who are also buried at Woodland) and later for NCR. I still have a dresser Bernard made for my father, he wrote on the back of one of the drawers.
Bernard died in 1966. It wasn’t until 2012 when I was visiting Woodland with my mother and my aunt that I literally stumbled over Bernard’s grave. I was looking for someone else’s grave when I found it. He’s buried on the hillside northwest from the swan pond not far from where my other relatives are buried. All those years, I never knew.
On the far end of the swan pond are my paternal great-grandparents, whom I mentioned a few weeks ago in my post about Old Greencastle Cemetery. Charlotte’s mother was Florence Claar Grice and she married my great-grandfather, Harold Grice, in 1906. I’m pretty sure that’s how my father ended up with the middle name of Harold. She gave birth to Charlotte in 1915. I believe the photo below is of Florence holding Charlotte on her lap around 1916.
Florence and Harold died within a few months of each other in 1945. They were both 60 years old. They are buried next to each other. The first time I saw their graves was in 2012. I don’t remember visiting their graves with my family but it’s possible I don’t remember.
That about sums up my family history at Woodland Cemetery. These people were not famous. You won’t find them in the history books like the Wright brothers, Erma Bombeck or poet Paul Dunbar. But they are MY history. So they mean a great deal to me.
I like to think of those early visits to Woodland as the unwitting first link in the chain to where I am today and what I try to do. Share the stories behind the stones so the people they represent are never forgotten. Because I can remember standing over a stone that was once a mystery to me and I now take comfort in the fact that I have many of the answers now that I didn’t have then.
Next week, I’ll share the history of Woodland Cemetery and introduce you to some of its more famous residents.