Mt. Bethel is the oldest burial ground in Columbia and is the final resting place of between ten and eleven thousand of its former citizens, many of them significant persons from the rich history of our Borough. Mt. Bethel Cemetery was created by a petition signed by the following: John Houston Mifflin, Samuel Truscott, John L. Denny, C. S. Kauffman, Jacob C. Pfahler, James Meyers, Samuel W. Collom, William Patton, J. L. Hess, Ephraim Hershey, Phillip Gossler, John B. Bachman, Michael Liphart, John DW. Steacy, Michael Shuman, Hiram Wilson, Frederick S. Bletz, Thomas S. Scott, Henry H. Houston, A. J. Kauffman.
The petition stipulated the company to be a stock company run by a group of nine managers. A Charter from the State via the Lancaster Co. Court of Common Pleas was issued April 20, 1868. From the group of petitioners and stockholders, the nine Managers were elected and John Houston Mifflin was selected as President.
In July of 1868, a contract was let to Krodel and Smith to build the Superintendent’s house for the sum of $1310. On Dec. 20, 1870 the Borough accepted the petition of the Cemetery not to extend 7th St. southward through the cemetery.
The very first formal burial ground in Columbia was set apart shortly after the settlement of the Blunstons, Wrights, and the Barbers in the early 1700s. This is now identified as Section I but was originally called “Old Bethel” Later it became known as the “Old Brick Cemetery” when it was enclosed by a thick brick wall around 1746. The bricks were imported from England by Samuel Blunston who intended to build a residence for himself. Unfortunately he died before the arrival of the bricks in Columbia. There were many early burials in this section, many do not have markers or can no longer be read.
The earliest burial marker still legible is dated 1745. In December of 1819, John L. Wright conveyed a plot of ground to the Society of Friends for a burial ground. This is Section J today. We have not found the paper work but this action led to the conveyance of a plot to the Presbyterian Congregation, Section K. the Methodist Congregation, Section L, and the Lutheran Congregation, Section M. Another plot was set aside for the Borough to use for the burial of the poor and the black population and is known as Potters Field.
Unfortunately today we have few, if any, records of the early burials that are located in these sections of the cemetery prior to 1868. The only information we have comes from a survey of the markers and genealogy records done by a Francis X. Reuss and published in the Columbia papers in 1903. Burials continued to take place in these early sections from the early 1700s to the mid 1800’s when on October 12, 1852 John Houston Mifflin created the “New” or “Mifflin Cemetery.” His plan was to create a cemetery north of the Congregational burial grounds. This cemetery was to be in the form of three circles, only one of which we find in the cemetery today, Section A. There was to be a circle on either side of this original one. This “New” cemetery was approved by an act of the Legislature on March 22, 1858. Ten years later this new cemetery was incorporated into the creation of Mt. Bethel as reviewed earlier.
In reading through the early minutes of the Company we have found some very interesting bits of information that we would like to share.
In 1876 an arrangement was made with Mr. Stehman to thrash the rye in the cemetery in exchange for the straw to be kept by Mr. Stehman. The cemetery was surrounded by open fields. The wooden gate at the entrance at 7th St. was to be painted and also the one opposite the Washington Institute. The cemetery owned the land on 6th St. and they began to pursue the sale of building lots on that land.
In 1880 the company held mortgages on numerous properties in the Borough including one on the Church of God building. William F. Lockard was given permission to erect a mausoleum on his lot. On Nov. 15 1886, Borough Council was requested to swear in Jacob Rich who was the cemetery superintendent at the time, as a special officer to make arrests in the cemetery.
In 1888 John Houston Mifflin, Mt. Bethel Cemetery Company President, died after serving 12 years in that post. He was the father of Lloyd Mifflin and Dr. Houston Mifflin.
In January of 1889, Dr. Houston Mifflin was elected President of the Board. He served in that capacity for 47 years until his death in 1936.
In the late 1890’s, contracts were let to erect the first section of iron fence on Locust St. Later sections were erected in the early 1900’s.
In October of 1900, a telephone was installed in the Superintendent’s house at a cost not to exceed $18 per year.
On June 5, 1901, the Secretary was directed to send a letter to persons who were delinquent in purchase payments for lots to remove the bodies interred there at the delinquent’s expense if not paid.
On August 19, 1902, special instructions to the superintendent during the smallpox epidemic of 1902:
On July 13, 1905 a motion was made to accept propositions of the Congregations of Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. This action started the transfer of their burial grounds to Mt. Bethel. In March of 1906 all were transferred for the consideration of $1.00. This was also the consideration when the heirs of John Wright transferred the Old Brick Cemetery in 1909. The Society of Friends, because there was no longer a congregation in Columbia took longer. The first parcel was transferred in 1919, another in 1922 and the last in 1924. The cost was considerably higher at over $3,000.
In the last 25 years the Cemetery began to decline. The number of burials became less and the only new lots sold were in the old roads that existed in the cemetery. During the later part of the last century as the members of the Board passed away they were not replaced. R. Clark McCachren was the last elected member of the Board and when he suffered a stroke he asked his colleague Ted Miller to take over the management of the Cemetery. Ted was never elected to the Board until the recent reorganization. He assumed this new responsibility as he did many others in the community. Ted tried to operate the cemetery with the receipts from the Cemetery Trust which amounted to approximately $5,000 per year and from contributions received from persons who were sent an annual solicitation letter. There were about 180 persons on his list.
In 1994 the Columbia Lions Club organized a cleanup of the Cemetery. They had over 100 volunteers show up on a designated Saturday and were able to mow the entire cemetery. The hope was that we would give Ted Miller and Paul Hedricks, who lived in the house, a head start on keeping the grounds mowed during the summer. This did not last as they had difficulty finding persons to mow especially for the small amount of funds available. Later that year a group of volunteers began meeting to see what could be done to restore the cemetery. A committee was formed with John Hinkle, Kevin Kraft, Ted Miller, Dave Mountz, William Linkous, John Kraft, Fred Gerfin Jr., Marlin Morrison, and Ron Mable meeting to discuss the future of the cemetery.
On Feb. 23, 1995 a meeting of the stockholders of Mt. Bethel Cemetery was called for the purpose of reorganization of the Board.
Since none of the volunteers were stockholders, the committee did not know if any would attend the meeting. None did attend but the committee had secured by proxy the only known shares that were owned by Betty McCachren, Clark’s widow. These shares were voted and a new Board elected with John Hinkle, President, Ted Miller, Secretary, Kevin Kraft, Treasurer, and Ronald Mable, Superintendent.
Fund raising began by using Ted Miller’s original list and continues to this day.
However, the list has grown to between 400 and 500 recipients. The new Board of Directors has secured a small grant and some significant gifts. They have also identified areas where additional burial lots can still be sold. With that income and the income from burials, the Board has been able to restore the cemetery so that is not an eye sore for the community. The Board still has much to do but we are proud of the accomplishments so far. Since the reorganization we have been able to: