Just north of West Winfield Township in Butler County, is a silent and sobering place known as the Wooden Cross (or Black Cross) Cemetery, although the title of cemetery is a bit of a stretch. In the early 1900s, many Polish and Slovak immigrants moved into the area to work in the expanding industries such as the limestone mine, sand plant, brickyard, salt works, or tile works that were in the area. However, in 1918, many of these workers became exposed to the influenza virus, a disease that was quickly turning into an international epidemic. The virus proved to be a deadly encounter for many of these people, and many 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 of these men were single, 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 field 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. In Winfield Township there were at least 300 recorded cases of death by the Spanish flu.
The area of the Wooden Cross Cemetery is currently owned by Armstrong Cement and Supply Company, and it is now a Butler County Historical Site. After the original wooden cross deteriorated and fell apart, the Saxonburg District Women’s Club elected to put a white cement cross burial marker into place. The club also put a historical marker in place in 2002. It reads,
Here are buried an unknown number of local victims of the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 – one of history’s worst epidemics in terms of deaths. In Butler County, the worst period was early October to early November 1918, with some 260 deaths in the county seat alone. Immigrant workers in the limestone and other industries are buried in this cemetery, with one to five bodies in each grave. A large wooden cross marked the site.
With outbreak of disease comes the fear of an epidemic, and this fear was completely justified in 1918. As of November of 1918, the Spanish flu had already claimed over 35,000 lives in the state of Pennsylvania alone. The absolute fear of this disease was nothing to take lightly. The local paper, The Butler Citizen, recorded influenza as the cause of death in the obituaries often, with one day having as many as twelve deaths due to influenza alone. 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. The fear of widespread disease epidemics was very prevalent in the early twentieth century, before the introduction of vaccinations to help stop these outbreaks. This mass burial in Winfield Township is a grim reminder of the horrors of the past. It is our duty to remember the past in such a way that we keep in mind the struggles that have been overcome by humanity. It is important to realize that these struggles happened in our own backyards.