Abraham & Catherine Sperling | Old Union Cemetery
Trying to envision the Port Washington of my great-great-great-grandparents’ day engenders a feat of imagination that is often best aided by aerial maps.
To walk the streets of “Port”, as I knew it growing up 20 miles north on I-77, is to search in vain for any traces of the old canal. The blocks that ran along the industry-sparking waterway have altered their shapes. The shops and the shop buildings are long gone, including Augustus Ley’s dry goods store.
Oh, there’s a post office, still, on the square. And big guns befitting the majesty of the war memorial. A gazebo so new you can just about hear the wood squeak. These are artifacts of a more recent vintage.
But if you let your eyes wander… upwards, along the treeline, the blurred ridges encircling the region like an upturned collar, then the steadfast spires of the churches in town seem to waver if you squint your eyes just right, and time, too, can seem to slip a bit. The churches have been there a long time. And the hills so long it makes you dizzy to think about it.
So when I try to get a feel for life a century and a half ago in Port Washington I turn away from its square and the subtly sunken bed of its yards where the canal once flowed and walk southwest along Arch Street. Even three blocks out from the square the houses give way to open fields stretching off to the treeline and the ridgeline and the hills, and down a little lane in the midst of that open land are great groves of trees, clusters of shadowy green where the town for two centuries has buried its dead.
Walking the lane, farthest back is the newer cemetery, where family names of teachers and friends give off a watery glisten, engraved in the newest stones planted there. Closer in, the names of relatives four, five generations back, and their contemporaries: Stocker, Hammersley, Sperling, Ley. It was in the newer Union Cemetery where my mother, moved by the regimental arrangement of family stones in the large Ley burial plot — from the rose stone obelisk of Karl and Caroline (Vogelsang) Ley, first to America from Germany; through the upward facing blocks of Augustus and son Charles Ley’s families, arranged in lines from the hulking C.H. Ley headstone — imagined twirling in a circle and opening her eyes to find people strolling the streets in Victorian gowns and top hats.
Off to the right of the lane lies Old Union Cemetery. The branches crowd closer together here, the ground is clotted with brambles in places, the stones more weathered, some broken. In the shadows of the great tree near the front, almost at the entrance to the older burial ground, we find the resting place of my fourth-great-grandparents, Abraham and Catherine (Voorhees) Sperling.
Abraham Sperling – Cobbler, Butcher, Soldier
Natives of New Brunswick, N.J., Abraham and Catherine (Voorhees) Sperling were among the early settlers of Port Washington, according to The History of Tuscarawas County, published 1884. They were parents to 10 children — 6 boys and 4 girls, including two twin brothers, Alvin and Allen, born next-youngest on Dec. 24, 1854.
Eight of their children survived into adulthood. Their connection to the Leys would be cemented through their fourth child, daughter Harriet Sperling, whose daughter Minnie Eillene Hammersley would become bride to my great-great-grandfather Charles Henry Ley, son of Port Washington dry goods store owner Augustus.
Maria, the eldest of Abraham and Catherine’s children, was born in 1834 in New Jersey, where the Sperling and Voorhees families had laid down roots in Colonial times. By 1838 and the birth of Anna the couple has settled in Port Washington, which counted just over 100 residents in the 1840 census.
Abraham served the village as shoemaker and butcher. The 1870 census reports his occupation as auctioneer.
In 1861, at age 52, Abraham enlisted in the 58th regiment of the Ohio Infantry. During his seven-month term of service, the regiment served as a “school of the soldier,” and was based at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, before moving to Cincinnati in early 1862, according to a regimental history.
Abraham’s rank was private, according to pension records. He served the 58th as teamster and wagoner.
Abraham was joined in service during the Civil War by his oldest son, John, who as a Lieutenant was one of the commanders of Ohio’s 59th Colored Infantry, after earlier serving with distinction in the 53rd regiment from 1861-1863. He retained his commission in the 59th regiment through the war’s end in 1865.
The May 11, 1876 edition of The Ohio Democrat reports in its Port Washington dispatch: “The death record in our community for the last week has been quite unusual. … Mr. Abraham Sperling, after a long siege of suffering, died of dropsy on last Wednesday evening.”
Catherine outlived Abraham by 17 years. She ran the household in Port Washington as late as 1880, according to the federal census, and is still listed as a resident there in the pensioner record of 1890, three years before her death.