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At Concordia, a wealth of history; A nonprofit group of volunteers is forming to take care of the gravestones of the 17,000 buried in the Buffalo cemetery -- and to keep their stories alive

More than a century ago, Hank's Place over on Cherry Street served up more than just potato soup, home-brewed beer and Limburger sandwiches on rye, Rosemary Walter and her brother, Richard Rogenthien, will tell you.

"It was a place where you could find people playing euchre, talking current events and politics, and drinking beer," Rogenthien said. "The Fruit Belt neighborhood was a place of comfort."

These days, the family saloon is long gone; the Kensington Expressway runs through the spot where it once stood.

But the stories of the couple who ran it, Margaret and Henry Rogenthien, and their family live on through their grandchildren.

Rogenthien and Walter -- dressed in the styles of a century ago -- served up their stories Saturday. Their ancestors are among 17,000 Buffalo-area residents buried in Concordia Cemetery.

About 20 people gathered in a chilly backroom of the cemetery association's headquarters on Walden Avenue on Saturday to hear the stories, a reflection of an area with German-American roots that later saw an influx of African-Americans.

Some of those stories are light. Others much heavier, recalling days of sacrifice and struggle.

"This is our heritage here -- Buffalo's heritage," said Diane Pesch-Savatteri. "People need to hear these stories. Yes, times are hard now. But these people went through really hard times."

In the front room of the old farmhouse that serves as cemetery headquarters, Pesch-Savatteri pointed to a small oval picture of her great-aunt Amelia, holding a baby on her lap. She is surrounded by five young children -- the brood she was left to raise alone when her husband died -- after she had already lost a 2-year-old sons on the voyage from Germany to America.

"On the day of her husband's funeral here at Concordia, Amelia's landlord came and said, 'You have to move out -- you have no income,' " she said. "So she moved in with her mother and cleaned houses to bring in income."

The cemetery fell on hard times more than a decade ago, falling into disrepair after the treasurer embezzled funds. Over the past several years, the efforts of a devoted group of volunteers have been bolstered by others, including the Erie County Sheriff's Office, which provides inmate labor to maintain the grounds.

The cemetery has become a community project in many ways.

On Saturday, several people shared stories of their own ancestors, but others told stories of those buried at Concordia who they have come to know.

Debbera Ransom, an Army veteran, related the life story of Johnetta R. Cole, an African-American woman who served as a nurse in Vietnam. A new AMVETS post was named in her honor.

"Ms. Cole is an example of the courage and strength that has been and continues to be demonstrated by our female veterans," Ransom said.

A history class at Hilbert College this semester took on the challenge of researching the lives of several African-Americans buried at the cemetery. Each student wrote a three-page narrative about one of them, written in the first person.

"It's awesome -- you get folks of all ethnicities writing in these voices," said Erika D. Haygood, an assistant professor at Hilbert. "These are folks whose names were forgotten in history, but they led deeply fascinating lives."

The all-volunteer group running the cemetery is forming a non-profit organization to tend to the graves, as well as the stories of those buried there. The group has its sights set on compiling a book.

Anyone interested in sharing stories of people buried in the cemetery are asked to call 892-2909 or find Friends of Concordia Cemetery on Facebook.