The mystery is part of the lore surrounding the Village of Yellow Springs: Were Revolutionary War soldiers buried here?
The past rear-ended the present when critics of an 80-vehicle parking lot being constructed next to the West Pikeland Cultural Center on Art School Road posed that question earlier this fall.
Some township supervisors say the lot is needed to relieve the parking problems in the village, which is part of West Pikeland Township. The village attracts 22,000 sightseers a year to the historic sites, galleries and a theater. Some residents living near the lot argue it's an eyesore and that the supervisors didn't give residents enough input.
No graves were found when the township conducted an archeological dig in October. And the search for Revolutionary burial sites largely has been abandoned by parking lot critics. But for local historians, the recent dig has revived the village's mystique.
"The graves are part of the folklore of the area," said Rob Lukens, executive director of Historic Yellow Springs Inc., a nonprofit organization that preserves 13 buildings and 142 acres of land around the Village of Yellow Springs. "I'm an historian. I'm trained to always find real, hard evidence of claims like that."
He intends to find archeological proof. Lukens says that his objective is to create a memorial for the soldiers, though he adds that the memorial might also attract visitors.
Historic Yellow Springs applied for a private grant to conduct ground-penetrating radar scans over their acreages. The nonprofit's land is separate from the township-owned land where the cultural center and parking lot are located. Lukens said that searching for the graves has been the goal even before the parking lot dispute erupted.
After the Battle of the Brandywine in 1777, General George Washington petitioned the Continental Congress to create a hospital for soldiers.
A Yellow Springs spa owner donated parts of his property for such use. The hospital treated more than 1,000 soldiers between 1777 and 1781, when it closed.
In 1970, the township successfully applied for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and cited the possibility of burial sites in the meadow in front of Washington Hall and south of Pickering Lane, located several thousand feet from the parking lot.
Soldiers commonly were buried near the sites where they died, said Lukens. Hospitals had to dispose of bodies as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of disease.
Only the hospital's foundation exists today. A fire in 1962 ravaged the building, which was used as a film studio for Good News Productions, which produced such science-fiction films as
Ground-penetrating radar scans in September initially indicated burial sites might lie beneath the proposed parking lot. But an archeological dig revealed that the potential graves were rodent dens, according to a final report issued last month by a West Chester-based geophysical investigations firm, Geo-Graf Inc.
Parking lot critic Bob Shemonsky, who sued the township along with neighbor John Matthews, said his chief concerns were the size, cost and necessity of the lot.
Shemonsky criticized the current supervisors for not developing a village-wide parking plan prior to breaking ground on the lot. The parking plan may have qualified for state grants to relieve taxpayers of construction costs, he argued.
The Clearview Road resident won a six-year seat on the board of supervisors last month, while Matthews lost a bid for a four-year term. Shemonsky said he plans to push for attractive landscaping around the parking lot.
"I'll do what I can to salvage the atmosphere of the area," Shemonsky said.
A dozen residents live in the Village, Lukens estimated.
Township supervisor William Cracas said he believes the graves were used as a delay tactic by neighbors opposed to the parking lot.
The dispute comes as township officials are grappling with how to attract even more tourists - and money - to the village. Cracas envisions a mix of upscale restaurants, gourmet coffee shops, galleries, and a more robust cultural center boasting nationally and internationally recognized performers.
The West Pikeland Cultural Center hosted a benefit concert last month by singer Madeleine Peyroux. The 40-seat theater currently is used once a week by an amateur performing group, said Cracas.
"The township wants to preserve Historic Yellow Springs, not just for today, but for tomorrow," Cracas said.