James P. Leaf Mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

James P. Leaf mausoleum, 1949. Beaver Cemetery.

This blogger has spent a lot of time in the boneyard. So much time, we dare say, that we’ve hung out more than some cemeteries’ (newer) full-time residents. To visit one is a whole enchilada experience: you get to be outside in the introvert’s version of Kennywood–usually alone, in near silence, on beautifully-cared-for grounds that feel like a wild city park. Often there are the deer and crows and opossums to back it up. But it’s a park alive (ironically) with stories and history, carved images and statuary. Any cemetery has way too much to take in for just a single visit.

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Have you seen the back? Large boulders embedded in the Leaf mausoleum.

What these hallowed grounds don’t tend to feature so often is the touch of the human hand. Typically, gravestones are professionally-cut, perfectly-engraved, production line affairs. They’re marvels of precision stone-cutting and restrained grace, symmetry and classical iconography.

Rarely, however, does one encounter a grave marker that was hand made by the grieving family. [An obvious exception to this is the “DIY gravestones of Highwood Cemetery” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, 2015).] It is especially rare to see a stone or tomb that looks like his or her bats-in-the-belfry aunt or brown bottle flu uncle would have built it.

large stone blocking entry to mausoleum entry, Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Leaf mausoleum, entry (detail)

That, however, is exactly what Beaver Cemetery’s James P. Leaf mausoleum looks like. At approximately the size of a one-car alley garage, it’s definitely the right scale for your typical double-crypt couple’s tomb–but it sure doesn’t look like one. There are none of the straight lines, white stone, or classical features we normally see. Mr. Leaf didn’t even receive the customary stained glass rear windows like we peeked in on in Allegheny Cemetery.

Instead, the monument has clearly been constructed by hand, from an oddball collection of irregular stones. These range from the size of a cantaloupe to huge boulders that would crush a house in their falling path. One of these massive rocks has been set to entirely block the front entrance to the tomb, leaving only an oxidized copper Leaf nameplate visible awkwardly above. Water-smoothed river pebbles have been used to create decorative features within the mortar walls and vertically-places stones sit on top to resemble crude castle battlements.

There is a maybe too-good-to-be-true story that the mausoleum was built with stones pulled from each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties that appears in several sources, all unsubstantiated.

mosaic detail made from pebbles, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Detail: pebble mosaic

James Pinney Leaf (1866-1949) seems an unlikely soul to spend eternity in such a ramshackle final resting place. The son of an engineer, Leaf followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a degree in engineering, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I, and working on projects and surveys in Rochester, PA, the Ohio canals, Pymatuning Reservoir, on Lake Erie, and along the Ohio River.[1]

So how did a lifelong builder and engineer end up in a cattywumpus backyard barbeque of a crypt like this one? There’s got to be a great explanation here.

view into crypt interior, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

View into crypt interior

Spoiler Alert: We don’t know! The Orbit sat on this story for an entire year, dug into the books with the crew at the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Room, consulted professional archivists, talked to Beaver Cemetery staff, and … Zilch. Goose egg. Bubkes. “Nothing burger”.

Who James P. Leaf was is well documented–Hillman Library has a huge collection of family papers–but it’s a total mystery how such an esteemed veteran, builder, and prominent community member ended up with this pile-of-rocks mausoleum.

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

One of these memorials is not like the rest. Leaf mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery.

It was a rough week–emotionally and physically. Nobody wants to hear about all that, but you’ll no doubt respect the need to just move on and let a mystery be its own mysterious self. Maybe by having this story out there someone who actually knows what’s up with the Leaf tomb can enlighten us and we can finally set the record straight.

Currently, we’re in the apex of leaf-changing glory. If you’re looking for a destination to get your fall colors on, you could do a lot worse than the fun drive out Route 65, past Punks Ice Cream and the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy, to lovely little Beaver Cemetery. See what you can find out for ol’ Orbit, will you?


[1] University of Pittsburgh Library System, Leaf family papers.

Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thumberg

brick house with many handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Little America: Thumberg house, 3rd Street, Beaver, PA

It’s a cliché, sure, but you can’t miss it.

No, the sweet, pre-war two-story brick home would look a lot like many others found in Pittsburgh’s down-river boroughs but for the wealth–some might say overload–of red, white, and blue homemade patriotic holiday displays that fill every inch of its front, side, and rear yard space. Together, they lift this house from small town charmer to an explosion of full-on Yankee Doodle Dandydom.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

Beaver, PA. A picture-perfect embodiment of quaint. The town’s wide streets, stately manors, well-groomed lawns, and fancy boutiques look more country posh than the (ex-)industry brownfields and empty storefronts of almost all its Ohio Valley neighbors[1]. But it’s a pleasant, accessible, middle-class midwestern posh, rather than its harder-to-take New England old money cousin.

There was long bit about taking a bike from Monaca to Rochester and then here to Beaver, but our editor told us to cut the crap. Suffice to say, there are a bunch of interesting things in town and River Road is both aptly-named and bicycle-perfect. If you take it almost all the way around and then back to the main drag, your ride-around will conclude up on 3rd Street with the great homemade holiday decorations of Gary Thumberg.

Gary Thumberg with his handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Gary Thumberg by his alley cannon and flags

Some of the displays may be what you’re expecting. There are dozens of eagles, their wings spread in majestic mid-flight glory and bodies brightly marked like sports jerseys. A couple of them have been framed in lumpy ovals to appear as if in an official seal. Uncle Sam is here–the red, white, and blue literally oozing out of him–as are many, many American flags in different sizes and variants.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including flags, eagles, and star flowers, Beaver, PA

side of Thumberg’s house with flags, eagles, and star flowers

In The Orbit‘s annual Independence Day post, we mused about why it’s so difficult for homemade flag-painters to get the 50-star count right. On this matter, we need to eat some Corvus brachyrhynchos (that’s all-American crow).

With so many homemade flags created by the same two hands, it’s exciting to see the umpteen different expressions that Gary Thumberg has come up with. For sure: flags that are near the exact design you’ll see flying above the courthouse are featured in the yard. But so are seven-striped models of minimalism, gestural two-star tree-hangers, and reverse-color mind-benders.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

In addition to these familiar forms, the lawn display also includes some other interesting takes on America’s favorite color scheme.

Thumberg attacks the most effervescent of holiday imagery in his captured-in-time fireworks explosions. These wooden cut-outs–complete with smoke trails and star blasts–are repeated several times with different paint jobs. The image is perhaps Thumberg’s most impressionistic form–a daring move to represent so much motion and light, sound and fury in two dimensions, staked in grass.

handmade wood cut fireworks lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

fireworks

The most unique of Thumberg’s choices has to be a large teddy bear form that appears multiple times around the property[2]. How these relate to the declaration of independence, we don’t know–and didn’t think to ask at the time–but we’ll go with it. The bears are standing up for America with no identifiable facial markings and just the vertical red/white/blue stripes of the season. A human-sized teddy bear is out front riding a (real, decommissioned) bicycle.

handmade wood cut teddy bear lawn decoration on bicycle, Beaver, PA

show me what democracy looks like: patriotic teddy bear on bicycle

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including teddy bear, fireworks, and Uncle Sam, Beaver, PA

patriotic teddy bear, fireworks, Uncle Sam

You’d think the 4th would be enough, but Gary Thumberg is holiday crazy. Independence Day is just one of four annual occasions that prompt the sixty-something year-old Thumberg to shuffle the contents of his storage shed/workshop/garage–taking in the previous event’s decor and prepping for the next.

With a holiday every season [Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are the others] and the weeks of work it takes him to remove the old, bring out the new, patch, paint, and repair any trouble spots, and finally lay out and line up everything for display, the decorations are a (nearly) full-time side occupation.

handmade wood cut eagles lawn decorations in back yard, Beaver, PA

back yard eagles and flags

The family came to this house on 3rd Street over 40 years ago, and Gary’s passion for holiday decoration goes back almost as long. The painted plywood decorations are all cut out by Thumberg with a jigsaw using various paper patterns or templates. From here, they’re sanded, painted, and hammered into the ground. The majority of the display is saved, stored, and brought back out again each year, but Gary tries to add one or two new pieces each season. Neighbors have gotten into the act by donating lights, wood, paint, and brushes.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decoration of red, white, and blue Snoopy, Beaver, PA

Snoopy

The Thumbergs–Gary lives with his lovely 87-year-old mother Doris–want you to stop by and see Gary’s work. A guest book out front encourages visitors to sign in and leave their thoughts. Doris has volumes of past years’ entries with signees coming from every state in the country and all over the world.

Catching this blogger photographing the side of his house, Gary came out to say hello and led me around, acting as tour guide to the full display, which extends into the back yard and out to the alley. Then I got invited into the house, phone numbers were exchanged, and we were invited back.

We will be back–for sure. We’ll see you guys at Halloween, if not sooner.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag


[1] Yes, Sewickley is the other obvious exception.
[2] We weren’t sure what these shapes actually are, but Gary Thumberg confirmed them as teddy bears.