A Museum Without Walls

Spring Grove Cemetery celebrates life. The cemetery flies in the face of common misconceptions about dreary corners where only ghosts reign supreme. Instead, this local gem and its caretakers focus on the rich lives that make Cincinnati unique and create a location where people want to visit.

“People always want to know the creepy ghost stories, but there aren’t any,” Phil Nuxhall, historian and tour coordinator for the Heritage Foundation of Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, says. “We don’t have any ghost stories because everyone is happy to be here.”

Nuxhall, like many natives, loves to wander around this living cemetery with its rich history, unique architecture and pristinely cared for lands that speak for the dead as well as the living.  “Spring Grove is a tribute those whose lives have passed. It’s an amazing location where people want to come and celebrate with those around them.”

Stepping into Spring Grove is like walking though rolling vistas of storybook histories and serene gardens. During spring through fall, the smells of thousands of plants carry visitors along as they journey from one striking monument to the next cascading waterfall. Winter’s bare trees put the focus back on the memorials and dormant life waiting to spring forth.

This beauty has been carefully honed since its inception in 1845. It’s the second largest cemetery in the nation with more than 730 acres—of which only 400 acres are landscaped and maintained. The cemetery has drawn notable visitors throughout the years like Abraham Lincoln (he stopped here on his way to the 1855 inauguration) and is the final resting place of groundbreakers like Salmon Portland Chase (founder of the I.R.S., Ohio Governor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Secretary of the Treasury).

In addition to the veritable who’s who of family names, it’s the architecture and layout of the cemetery that makes the locale stand apart. In the beginning the grounds were cluttered with stone animals, furniture, and wrought iron fences. Then in the 1860s, Adolph Strauch revolutionized the design by deleting the extraneous and focusing on one central marker and expansive areas of landscaping.  Strauch, whose resume included the Hapsburg Imperial Gardens and other Cincinnati favorites like Eden Park, literally cleared the path for breathtaking, unique structures that families used to signify the lives of their departed. He also planted over 200 tree varieties, grouping them to create the most effective presence of form, color and size.

 “It’s a museum without walls. We have monuments from renowned artists and it’s free for anyone to view,” Nuxhall beams. “People can drive or bike through and see a five-foot tall granite pyramid, cannons, or a blue onyx Egyptian sphinx.”

Spring Grove is also home to 1,200 different species of trees and shrubs (1,000 that are labeled for study), plus 17,000 grades of ground cover. “We’ve replaced the negative image of the cemetery.  We have a chance to be here for the community and give back to the people who made history,” Whitney Huang, horticulturist for the Arboretum, explains.  “It’s also a huge resource to the community because of the plant collection. Classes from kindergarten through college come here to study.”

For more than three years Huang has created an ever -changing bulb and annual display to spark imaginations. She also cares for the 21 state champion trees and 2 national champion trees, whose designations indicate that they’re the largest specimen in the state or country.
“The lands are open and amazing. We have weddings, outdoor concerts and picnics,” Huang says. “We get to provide a lush, green environment that is like an oasis for those who are grieving and or just coming on their lunch break. “

The Must-See Stops
With so much to see, it may be hard to focus on just one or two things. The best bet is either to take a tour or make a few return trips to get it all in. In addition to the standard tours, 20 volunteer docents have crafted the Beer Barons Tour, Leaves and Reliefs, the Ladies of the Grove and more.
Here are some of the top spots for guests exploring on their own:

Grave Sites

  • General Joseph Hooker—the highest ranking general in the Grove and gentleman whose lovely ladies helped popularize the term “hooker”
  • Parents of William Howard Taft and Ulysses S. Grant, cousin of James Buchannan and many famous political families
  • India Boyer—the first licensed and practicing female architect in Ohio
  • Levi Coffin—president of the Underground Railroad 
  • William Cooper Procter, Nicholas Longworth Sr., George W. McAlpin, Henry Pogue,
  • Christian Moerlein and other notable Cincinnati names
  • John Robinson-the founder of the nation’s first traveling circus
  • Charles Breuer-whose bronze bust and realistic glass eyes have caused onlookers to gasp in creepy wonder

Landscaping Wonders

  • The 360-year-old white oak and the two lighting rods that protect its gnarled and twisted trunk
  • The “knees” of Cypress Lake—the trees were part of the original cemetery plantings and the rare knees form specifically on this tree when its near water
  • The Dawn Redwood section-these redwoods were thought to be extinct until the 1940s when they were re-discovered in China the seeds were brought back to Spring Grove; it’s also a state champion
  • The 25,000 tulips that bloom around April 15th at Spring Grove, Gwen Mooney Funeral Home and Oak Hill Cemetery
  • Fifteen lakes, 35 miles of road, waterfalls and a railroad bridge
    The Truth Behind the Stories
  • Despite the common misconception, Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) isn’t buried in Spring Grove. There is a bronze statue of him in honor of his good deeds, but he is buried in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
  • George Reeves, who originally played Superman, isn’t buried in Spring Grove. He was married to Ellen Nora Robinson, of the Cincinnati Robinson Circus family, for seven years. His maternal grandparents are in Spring Grove and his mother, Helen Bessolo, did write a burial request that was rejected due to limited space in the mausoleum. Reeves was cremated and flown back to Hollywood.

From business reporter to book and magazine editor—she was the first lady editor of Cincinnati Gentlemen Magazine—Bethe Ferguson has sharpened her writing chops by showcasing the people and areas that make her beloved city so unique. In addition to a passion for prose, Bethe spends her days raising research dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. When not writing or fund raising, she volunteers with Give Back Cincinnati and other fine organizations, reads, travels, and spends time with her husband David and their two dogs.

Photographs by Scott Beseler

Tulips and Stained Glass  photos courtesy of

Historic Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum

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