Monday, October 16, 2023

Part of the Heller Family Story

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

For two dark nights, and one late afternoon, Woodlawn Cemetery was visited by hundreds of visitors who strolled the paths and listened to the stories of four of the cemetery’s permanent residents. It was the 17th annual Ghost Walk, offering a unique glimpse into our area’s past and some of its most interesting inhabitants.

Guided by Friends of Woodlawn volunteers, visitors explored the cemetery, pausing to hear the four ghosts tell their tales. The stories, based on fact and researched by our staff, were brought to life by actors from Elmira Little Theatre. Over the years we’ve been able to share stories of 69 different people buried at Woodlawn.

One story not widely known is that of the Heller family, previous owners of the land that would become Woodlawn Cemetery.

In the early 19th century, Michael and Nancy Ann Heller arrived in the county to settle and raise a family. They were German immigrants who had first moved to Pennsylvania to pursue farming. Looking further, they were attracted to the Chemung Valley’s rich agricultural opportunities, and they relocated and purchased land on the outskirts of Elmira. Like many farmers of the day, they had a large family. Charles, the youngest of their eight children, followed his father into farming. In 1851, Charles married Mary Neish of Elmira and they raised two girls, named Frances and Harriet, and twin boys, named David and Michael.

L to R: Michael, Frances, David, and Harriet Heller
Not long after Charles had set up his farm, the City of Elmira was looking for land to build a new cemetery. For that purpose, Charles and Mary Heller sold the city a piece of their land for $10,000. The cemetery was chartered in 1858 and designed by architect Howard Daniels, who was active in the rural cemetery and garden cemetery movements, which emphasized natural elements. Today, Woodlawn encompasses 184 acres, and its natural elements include winding pathways and green space to inspire visitors and promote reflection.

Charles and Mary Heller valued education and had the means to pay for it. They sent daughters Frances and Harriet to study at the newly opened Elmira College, while sons David and Michael attended nearby Cornell University.

During his studies at Cornell, David was active in sports and also became editor of the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Both boys graduated in 1888, and David stayed an additional year to study law before returning to Elmira. In 1890, he was admitted to the bar. He was elected County Clerk a few years later, serving in this position for four years. In 1898, he was elected to the State Assembly, to represent Chemung County as the youngest Assembly member at the time. Elected City Judge in 1907, he served for close to twenty years, lasting through five four-year terms. In 1911, David married Julie Weyer; the couple had no children.

In 1925, David Heller was elected mayor. He resigned his judgeship, but he remained active in the community. He served as president of the City Club and held memberships in the Elmira Country Club, the Union Lodge, the F. & A.M. (Free and Accepted Masons), Knights of Pythias, the BPO of Elks, and the Park Church. He was president of the Chemung County Bar Association and a member of the NY State and American Bar Associations. The high point of his career came in 1929, when NY Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to fill the unexpired term of State Supreme Court Justice George McCann, who also happened to be Heller’s cousin. He hoped to remain as Supreme Court Justice after his appointed term expired, but ran an unsuccessful campaign. He then returned to private practice.

In 1932, at the age of 66, Judge David Heller suffered an appendicitis attack, and died a few days later. The Star-Gazette called his death a shock to the community. David Heller had been in public service for over 40 years.

His twin was equally dedicated. In 1888, when Michael graduated from Cornell, he returned straightaway to Elmira. He first found work at Gridley Hardware Store, located at 119 East Water Street. Soon after, he left and formed his own hardware store. The Gridley Company bought him out and Michael left business to become City Court clerk. In 1926, he was appointed assistant superintendent of Woodlawn Cemetery, and six months later, he became superintendent. It was a position that Michael Heller served for 14 years.

Not long after he returned to Elmira, Michael married Charlotte Stone and the couple had four sons. Sadly, Charlotte died in 1915.

Like David, Michael was active in public service. He was a member of the Board of Supervisors, secretary of the Chemung County Agricultural Society, alumni secretary of his Cornell class for more than 50 years, and secretary of the Central New York Fairs Association. He was also a member of F. & A.M., of Park Church and a master of Union Lodge. He outlived his brother David by nine years, dying at the age of 75 after an extended illness.

Four years ago, gardens were constructed at Woodlawn to honor the Heller family. Woodlawn Cemetery now offers the Heller Memorial Gardens as an option for those wanting a cremation garden (also called a columbarium). The gardens are located just inside Woodlawn’s Walnut Street entrance.

Consider this an extra cemetery story, and if you want to hear 2023 ghost scripts again, or for the first time, join us at 12:05 pm on Wednesday October 25, 2023. Staff will read scripts, share images, and answer questions. The event is free and open to the public. 

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