Just north of West Winfield Township in Butler County, is a silent and sobering place known as the Wooden Cross (or Black Cross) Cemetery. It is a monument to the devastating impact of a global epidemic on a small western Pennsylvania community.
In the early 1900s, many Polish and Slovak immigrants moved into the area near Winfield Township to work in the expanding industries such as the limestone mine, sand plant, brickyard, salt works, or tile works that were in the area. In 1918, many of these workers became exposed to the influenza virus, a disease that was quickly turning into an international epidemic. As of November 1918, the so-called "Spanish" flu had already claimed over 35,000 lives in the state of Pennsylvania alone. The local newspaper The Butler Citizen recorded influenza as the cause of death frequently in the obituaries, with as many as 12 deaths per day.
The virus proved to be especially deadly in Winfield Township, where several hundred victims succumbed. Living conditions for the workers there - likely in congested and unsanitary boarding houses or other group living spaces - undoubtedly encouraged its spread.
Many of these workers died without a church, organization, or family that would ensure they received a proper burial. Like many immigrant laborers in the early 20th century, most were single men, having left their families to earn money and get established in the United States. At the time the county, state, and federal governments refused to provide a burial for the massive amount of people who had succumbed to the flu without anyone to take care of post-mortem affairs.
A local farmer with the last name of McLaughlin donated one of his fields to serve as a final resting place. A man and his son who owned a wagon were recruited to bring the bodies to the field where they were to be interred, with as many as twenty bodies placed in each grave. Laborers spread hydrated lime across the bodies in order to speed their decomposition. This quick burial was in the hopes that it would prevent the spread of the disease. There was only one headstone that was found in this “cemetery,” belonging to Frank Bacich, a thirty-one year old.
A priest from neighboring Coylesville, Pennsylvania thought that these predominantly Catholic immigrants deserved a proper burial and service, despite the hasty interment. Father O’Callahan commissioned a large wooden cross, made of railroad ties, to be placed on the grave site. It is not certain exactly how many people were buried in these mass graves.
The municipality of Butler shut down every place of gathering out of fear of spreading the deadly disease. Prior to the shutdown, upwards of 250 pupils were missing school everyday due to the outbreak. Even into the holiday season, health officials were still warning people to stay away from large crowds to keep the disease contained.
Today the area of the Wooden Cross Cemetery is owned by Armstrong Cement and Supply Company, and it is now registered as a Butler County Historical Site. After the original wooden cross deteriorated and fell apart, in 2002 the Saxonburg District Women’s Club elected to put a white cement cross burial marker and historical marker at the site.
The mass burial in Winfield Township is a grim reminder of the impact epidemic diseases can have on the course of history, and also that such events often hit poorer communities the hardest. It is important to realize that these struggles happened in our own backyards.