Cemeteries hold so many stories - Keith Roulston editorial
In the June issue of The Rural Voice magazine, Belgrave-area farmer/columnist Kate Procter writes about the remnants of the pioneer community of Bodmin, from which her family’s farm takes its name.
Bodmin, east of Belgrave, thrived for about 30 years, beginning in the 1850s before the railway from Wingham to London drew businesses to Wingham, Belgrave and Blyth. Now all that remains of the little hamlet on the corner of the Procter family’s farm are flowers that survived from former residents’ gardens – and headstones collected into a cairn near where the community church once stood. In her column, Kate manages to read the weathered stone memorial to young Sarah Harris, the daughter of the settlement’s founders William and Isabelle Harris, who died on July 22, 1864 at the age of only one year, nine months.
There are fascinating stories like that to be found in so many cemeteries if you have an interest in the people who have built our communities. Jill and I periodically make a pilgrimage to Blyth Union Cemetery, renewing memories of people we knew who have passed on and learning of pioneers who date back to before we came to the community. From time to time we also explore the history of East Wawanosh by looking at the stones in the old Westfield Cemetery, after walking the trails nearby.
Such little abandoned cemeteries dot our area. Travelling to Brussels recently, we saw the sign for the pioneer hamlet of Sunshine, nearly invisible except for the little pioneer cemetery off to the north of the road. Travelling from Auburn to Blyth the other day I noticed the little cemetery on the edge of Bryan Gross’s farm, which I usually whizz by.
During last month’s Zoom meeting of the Huron County Historical Society, Daryl Ball told the story of the settlement of the area around Ball’s Bridge by his ancestors, and the community efforts to maintain Ball’s Cemetery and the little church there that has hosted an annual memorial service for a century.
Pioneer cemeteries hold a special spell over some of us. Recently, CBC Radio’s program The Current told the story of photographer Steve Skafte who has documented 50 abandoned cemeteries in Annapolis County, Nova Scotia. Clearing the sites and plotting locations on a map feels a bit like bringing the dead back to life, he said.
Annapolis County was one of the earliest locations of European settlement, dating back to 1605 when Samuel de Champlain established Port Royal. With such a long history, often people died and were buried before organized cemeteries were established. Skafte told of wiggling through the crawl-space of a house to find the headstones marking the resting place of twins who had died before the house was built.
My own family’s history includes a similar situation. My maternal great-great-grandparents James and Jennet Purves arrived from Berwickshire, Scotland in the former West Wawanosh Twp. (now Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh) in October, 1850, taking up 200 acres of land. Less than a year later, James died. There were no cemeteries that early in settlement so he was buried on the farm. Jennet died less than two years later and was buried beside her husband.
Originally their resting places were marked by only wooden crosses, but later these were replaced by a marble headstone. Later still, that stone was removed by a subsequent owner of the property and stored in a barn. Luckily, my cousin, the family historian, was informed of the location of the stone when he wanted to mark the graves, and found it – by now broken in three pieces – and was able to repair it and reinstall it.
The grave of their son Robert is much easier to find. At the age of only 17, he moved across what is now Amberley Road and took up land in Bruce County. The land contained a lake which became known as Purves’s Lake (the name was changed to Fairy Lake by a later owner). By the time of his death in 1902 he had amassed 400 acres, had served as reeve of Kinloss Twp. for more than 20 years and as warden of Bruce County for three terms. His memorial marker is one of the largest in South Kinloss Cemetery, north of Lucknow.
My father and mother are both buried, more modestly, in the same cemetery along with her parents. My father’s parents rest in the Kincardine cemetery, just across the street from the house they lived in until his death in a car accident when I was five.
There’s nothing practical about cemeteries. Many modern, progressive people argue they waste valuable land and urge cremation with no grave site. If you have an interest in history, however, cemeteries remind us of our predecessors who built the communities we live in – whether they be pioneers who cleared the land or just the generations that preceded us.