What Once Was (copy)

With just a remnant wall remaining of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Winchester’s Mount Hebron Cemetery, a new glass interpretive sign shows visitors what the church would have looked like before it was destroyed by fire in 1854.

Most people in the Winchester area have seen the remnants of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mount Hebron Cemetery, but few know what the old stone building looked like while it was still standing.

Now you can see it again, thanks to a unique interpretive sign that was purchased with community donations and installed earlier this month.

The sign, which was the brainchild of Winchester author Mike Robinson, features a drawing of the church as it originally appeared when construction was completed in 1793. When viewers stand directly in front of the sign, the drawing is overlaid against the actual limestone walls that are the only parts of the church still standing following a devastating fire in 1854.

Robinson said on Friday he was inspired to create the sign while watching a YouTube video about an archaeological dig in Pompeii. The video included a shot of a plexiglass sign to show visitors what a building in the ancient Roman city looked like before it was buried beneath nearly 20 feet of pumice and ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

“I thought, ‘Man, that would be great for the cemetery,’” Robinson said.

Jim Coots, superintendent of Mount Hebron Cemetery, liked the idea but told Robinson he would need to run it by the membership of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church because the church still owns the property and holds services there on Easter and other special occasions.

Robinson said he called the church’s current pastor, Martha Sims, “and she was on board. She loved the idea.”

It took a while for Robinson to track down a drawing of the original church that could be used for the sign, but he was eventually able to do so thanks to church historian Mary Froelich and Handley Regional Library System archivist Rebecca Ebert.

Kyle Hopkins of Four Square Architects in Winchester used the image to design the sign, a service that Robinson said he provided at no charge.

After finding the perfect location for the sign — a place that provided the right visual perspective and did not infringe on any burial plots — Robinson set out to find people willing to help cover its production and installation costs. He initially assumed $4,000 would be enough but soon discovered that a quality, long-lasting sign would cost $10,000.

He turned to fans of his popular “Winchester Tales” book series, which is comprised of six volumes of local history plus a seventh tome called “Civil War Tales,” but only raised a few hundred dollars.

Robinson then approached Scott Bessette, owner of the Piccadilly Place event center at 25 W. Piccadilly St. in Winchester, who immediately agreed to contribute $4,000. He got an additional $4,000 from local philanthropist James R. Wilkins Jr., and Omps Funeral Home in Winchester ponied up the remaining amount needed to cover the sign’s $10,000 cost.

“Within a week, we had the funds raised,” Robinson said. “It was a community effort.”

The sign was manufactured by Bryan Quick at Fastsigns, 1720 Valley Ave. in Winchester, using UV-resistant glass and a custom-designed metal frame that should last for decades. While production was taking place, Coots and his groundskeeping staff trimmed back a few tree branches near the old church’s remnants to make sure viewers of the sign would have a clear line of sight.

Robinson said he had hoped the sign would be ready in November, “but with supply chain issues and other things that were going on, we couldn’t get the glass.” The delays pushed back the sign’s installation to this month, about one year from when he first saw the video of Pompeii.

Even though the sign is already in place at Mount Hebron Cemetery, Robinson said he won’t hold a formal unveiling until April when the weather is warmer.

“I think it takes historical markers to another level,” he said. “The community came together and I was so pleased. This town always amazes me with its generosity.”

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

(1) comment

Mark Gunderman

On March 10, 1812, Christian Streit (first full time pastor) entered into rest. His loving friends and parishioners interred his body within the church under the square-brick pavement in front of the pulpit, while a great throng of people, sad of heart because of his death, but stronger and better because of his life among them, attended the scene. In 1876, almost sixty-five years after Rev Streit's death and twenty-two years after the burning of the old Church (1854), his remains were exhumed that they might be placed by the side of his kindred and that the exact spot of their sepulture might be known.

Copies of This Heritage, Revised Edition (2003) are available at the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives of Handley Library and at the administration office of Grace Lutheran Church, 26 W. Boscawen Street.

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