Chess Family Headstone, Ryerson StationState Park
In 2014, the rural Maine town that anchors my lifelong summers, marked its 200th anniversary. During the early years of village life, pioneering families managed their own farms, food, clothing, and schools until years later when municipal services took over these functions. A tour of a few of the town’s 100 private cemeteries caught my eye during the 2014 celebration.
For years I’d noticed headstones, toppled and cracked, along the sides of country roads. Deeper in the woods on hikes, I’d see clusters of graves, marked by head and foot stones, small and large, their inscriptions worn through time to unreadable bumps. Rows of boulders or spiked iron fences bordered these family graveyards. Today these rusting iron enclosures are disappearing due to high prices for scrap iron.
Hunters stalking moose, dear or wild turkey would come across these small cemeteries at the edges of abandoned farms that have today been reclaimed by forests. Local conservators cleared the sites and deciphered names and dates on the old stones. Volunteer historians researched old deeds. Schoolchildren studying town history cleared weeds and bushes. Together they have traced the town’s heritage.
A row of small stones showed that some disease had felled the children with lightning speed. Away in the woods might be the solitary grave of the family’s black sheep—banished from the clan’s burying ground, One striking example is a headstone at the edge of the town’s main road. The flag beside it, required by the military, announces that a Civil War veteran lies buried beneath the well-kept monument. Ostracized by his family in death, his location today subjects him to the roar of cars and motorcycles passing across the blacktop.
“How ghoulish,” I thought when I signed up for the tour. Instead I joined a poignant walk through 200 years and gained new respect for a town that honors its people and their history.