How many cemeteries in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else on the planet, can boast an owl sculpture 8 feet tall, next to a smaller owl, a bear, and a wooden-faced effigy of a man driving a corn walker? At the end of an extensive research period, we can name only one: Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Mariasville, near the border of Venango and Clarion counties.
When we screeched to a halt on Route 38 at the sight of this huge sculpture, the man responsible for it and the upkeep of the cemetery strolled out to greet us. Joe Russell is a retired refinery worker,
stonemason, and jack-of-all-trades, and a font of information about the tiny abandoned cemetery. Like many that were attached to towns in decline, it fell into disrepair and abandonment in the late 1800s. When federal funds appeared in the 1990s to help honor Pennsylvania’s dead, they were used to bulldoze the undergrowth and iron fence from around the graveyard, which enabled Russell to get in and take proper care of the stones.
When a particularly large oak in the cemetery began to look a bit unstable, he called in a lumberman to cut and haul it before it fell over and smashed any grave markers. The lumberman took the wood in payment for the work, but left the base of the tree, which had rotted hollow. Russell saw some artistic possibilities in it. With a little work, he thought, it could look like an owl. So he got a friend to bring his truck around and tried to load the trunk onto it. One snapped axle later, he changed his plans and cut the trunk into three parts and dragged them one by one on a sled to a field next to the cemetery.
Once reassembled, these three pieces became the owl sculpture that sits there today. His companions came along in subsequent years, as the mood struck. By 2003, the rot had overtaken the big owl sculpture, but Russell was not to be deterred. He brought in dozens of bags of cement to reinforce the sculpture, gave it a new paint job, and provided the driving public with a more permanent monument to gawk at as they tool around between Routes 80 and 322. Like hundreds of folk artists around the state, he keeps his mind busy with projects that combine creativity and structural engineering, and the state is the better for his efforts.
You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s other creepy crypts, unusual interments storied tombstones in Weird Pennsylvania.