History will come to life at the Old Pennington Methodist Cemetery next month as actors and musicians share tales of what life was like in Hopewell Valley centuries ago.
Spirits of Hopewell Valley, a historical drama featuring the stories of personages who and are buried in Pennington cemeteries, will be presented Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Old Methodist Cemetery. Nine actors will portray real life Hopewell Valley residents, ranging from the areas’s first settlers to civil war soldiers.
Event organizer Julianna Aberger said the day will begin with a procession headed by the Blackwell Memorial Home 19th century funeral wagon. All of the characters will follow the wagon into the Old Methodist Cemetery and stand by their respective graves. One-by-one, the characters will discuss the hardships, joys and disappointments of their lives, drawing on national and local history to tell their stories.
‘Cemeteries are considered dead, but they’re not really dead. There’s just so many stories there. You just have to look for them.’
Hopewell Hall, an a cappella ensemble specializing in 18th and 19th century repertoire, will perform a song from each character’s time period following their speeches. A post-performance reception will be held at the Pennington Library, where photographs of local cemeteries, including Old Methodist, by photographer Cheryl Jackson will be on display.
This is the third time Aberger has planned a historical theater presentation where she brings the dead back to life, but this year’s event is by far the biggest.
“I’ve always been fascinated by old cemeteries,” Aberger said. “They evoke for me a certain mystery and also history, and I’m always curious when I’m at an old cemetery reading the epitaphs about who they were and what part they played in local history.”
In 2005, Aberger asked her minister at Pennington United Methodist Church if she could present a historical theater show based on the lives of those buried in the church’s cemetery. The Pennington resident planned to present the reenactment with other church members in the cemetery, but rain moved the event inside the church. In 2011, they presented the show again, this time outside in the cemetery.
Aberger thought her historical theater days were behind her, but when Pennington Library volunteer coordinator Tara Russell recently learned about the two shows, she asked Aberger to work with the library to recreate the show.
“I was hesitant because at this point I was kind of bored with what we had done,” Aberger said. She agreed to do it, but only if they could conceptualize and enlarge the event, which they’ve done.
While past historical theater events were organized and performed by church members, Aberger teamed up with the library, her church, and the Hopewell Historical Society to find professional directors, singers and actors to plan the event and perform this year.
Aberger didn’t want to simply make the event bigger, she also wanted to make the event more inclusive. The Old Methodist Cemetery includes people of Presbyterian and Methodist faith, but Aberger wanted to include people of other faiths and backgrounds to make the event representative of the entire Hopewell Valley community.
Aberger worked with Jack Davis and David Blackwell from the Hopewell Historical Society to pick out seven people — a 1700s farmer, a pastor and his wife, a white Civil War soldier, among others — buried in the Old Methodist Cemetery as well as two men who are buried in the Pennington African Cemetery, Sam Blackwell, an 1800’s freeman, and William Boyer, a black Civil War soldier.
Together, Aberger, Davis and Blackwell spent months researching the personages, their families, histories and contributions to their town to write a historically accurate show. Aberger said the research process was painstaking at times, but they wanted to ensure they were putting on a show that accurately represented each person’s history.
The people of Hopewell Valley are proud of their towns, schools, libraries and all of the history that comes from their community, Aberger said. That sense of pride propels them to give back to the community, something Aberger and her family know firsthand.
Aberger has lived in Pennington since 1979. She worked as an EMT with Pennington First Aid Squad and had three children with her late husband Peter Aberger. Two of her children — Kate, a doctor at St. Joe’s in Patterson, and Johann, a professor at Colorado Mountain College — were also former volunteer EMTs. Her third child, Helen, works at Washington Performing Arts in D.C. and is an aspiring opera director who performed in the 2011 historical play.
Aberger hopes Spirits of Hopewell Valley will bring people closer to their own local history, as well as closer to their present day friends and neighbors.
“Cemeteries are considered dead, but they’re not really dead,” Aberger said. “There’s just so many stories there. You just have to look for them.”
Spirits of Hopewell Valley is free and appropriate for all ages. The event will be held Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Old Pennington Methodist Cemetery, located on Pennington-Titusville Road. In the event of inclement weather, the event will be held on Sunday, Oct. 22.