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Keeper of West Sunbury family history organizes cemetery tour

Bill Eshenbaugh, 81, of Florida, formerly West Sunbury, shares pieces of family history during a cemetery crawl in West Sunbury on Saturday, June 15. William Brad Waldenmyer, Eshenbaugh’s second cousin, takes notes. Irina Bucur/Butler Eagle

WEST SUNBURY — As the oldest of the Eshenbaugh clan, it’s now up to Bill Eshenbaugh, 81, to pass the family lore down to its youngest members.

That was the idea behind the cemetery tour that the Florida resident — who grew up in West Sunbury — organized on Saturday, June 15. About 40 relatives gathered at West Sunbury United Presbyterian Church Cemetery on Saturday morning to learn the stories of the ancestors buried there.

For Eshenbaugh, many of the stories he researched also were discussed at home.

“My father was born in 1892,” he said. “His father was born in 1824 ... some of this was the family history taught around the dinner table.”

Among Eshenbaugh’s relatives was his sister, Janet Campbell, who, with her husband, Jerry, own Campbell Bus Lines. At noon, the family boarded a Campbell bus to West Sunbury Union Cemetery. The two cemeteries are less than a mile apart; together they bear headstones of dozens of Eshenbaugh family members.

Marked on one the gravestones is the name William Dixon Eshenbaugh, Bill’s grandfather, who profited from the oil boom in Butler County. In a photograph attached in a booklet, he’s shown in a dress suit and a bowler hat, but, as Bill Eshenbaugh notes in his writing, “is wearing the rough shoes of a farmer.”

Another ancestor, John Eshenbaugh, was captured by Confederate troops. He survived the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia. There is also Besse Eshenbaugh, Bill Eshenbaugh’s aunt, who was a teacher and died of a ruptured appendix at 20 years old.

John Morton, 24, who lives in Tampa, took notes as Bill Eshenbaugh spoke, laying a flower at each grave the group visited.

“I don’t know much about our family background at all, so it’s cool to learn anything, even the little details,” he said.

The first ancestor to arrive in pre-Revolutionary America was Andreas Eschenbach, who was born in 1710 in Bavaria. A follower of the Moravian Church, which preceded Martin Luther and is one of the oldest Protestant denominations, he arrived in Philadelphia in 1740 with a group of missionaries.

Four generations later, the family name had been anglicized. Andrew Harvey Eshenbaugh, Andreas’ direct descendant and Bill Eshenbaugh’s great-grandfather, was born in Butler County in 1824.

He fought in the Civil War, re-enlisting in the 14th Pennsylvania Calvary following an injury. After the war ended, Andrew Eshenbaugh was dispatched to Kansas in the Great Plains War. All the while, his wife, Mary Ann Dixon, ran the family farm. With no word from her husband, Bill Eshenbaugh said his great-grandmother ran an advertisement in newspapers seeking his whereabouts.

“I would have loved to talk to her about the hardships she had, and how she ran the farm while (her husband) was gone,” Bill Eshenbaugh said. “Here she is, running the farm, running the family and not having any idea whether he’s alive or dead.”

In her honor, many Eshenbaugh descendants and offshoots were given her maiden name as middle names.

The information was all detailed in booklets Bill Eshenbaugh had written and handed to each relative. Eshenbaugh — a self-described history buff — said he has written hundreds of pages on the family history.

“I realized a couple of years ago that I was rapidly approaching being the oldest surviving person in (the family),” he said.

Being the keeper of his family history is “a pleasure,” he said.

“One of my wishes is that some of the 20-year-olds who come today will say, ‘I’m going to come back and help maintain these graves with flowers’ ... and keep up the cemetery a little bit when they’re 40 or 50 years old.”

The “last of the Mohicans” is how William Brad Waldenmyer, 75, describes himself and Eshenbaugh, who is his second cousin. The West Sunbury of their childhoods was a different world than it is today, they shared.

Eshenbaugh recalled how his parents taught in one-room schoolhouses.

“I actually started school in 1948 in a one-room schoolhouse here in West Sunbury,” he continued. He was among the first class to graduate from Moniteau Jr./Sr. High School in 1960.

“I don’t think people know each other like they did when I grew up,” Eshenbaugh said, reflecting on how his hometown has since changed. “Maybe there’s a little less community spirit. My memories were great because I started in the ’40s. The stores were all busy. They had a lunch counter in town. Everyone had a job. Everyone knew everyone ... we’re moving at a much faster pace now.”

Despite the bittersweet memories, Eshenbaugh doesn’t like to dwell on nostalgia.

“You can’t go back (in time),” he said. “I hate when I wander around and there’s a building gone. Like Thompson’s Market. That was here and it burned down. It was an institution. But I can’t go back. I try to keep myself looking forward.

“I like that kind of thing — staying alive,” he said. “For sure — you can’t go back.”

At seven years old, Waldenmyer would visit his grandfather in West Sunbury. Living in Butler, he learned to farm, how to take care of chickens and watched what life was like out in the country. Being in West Sunbury again, in his 70s, brought him back to his childhood, he said.

It also provided reflective moments on what life was like for those who came before him.

“I hope (young people) can take away something about what relatives went through for them to get to where they’re at today — the trials and tribulations of daily life,” Waldenmyer said. “From the hardships they endured to the diseases.”

“When I was in fifth grade, if somebody said something about history to me I’d turn the other way,” he said. “Now, it’s so much more personal.”

Layla Eshenbaugh, 2, rests as Bill Eshenbaugh, 81, explains the family history behind some of the tombstones in the West Sunbury United Presbyterian Church Cemetery on Saturday, June 15. Irina Bucur/Butler
Bill Eshenbaugh, 81, organized a tour of the two West Sunbury cemeteries with about 40 of his relatives on Saturday, June 15, visiting graves of family members dating back to before the Civil War. Irina Bucur/Butler Eagle

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