It was so hot and sultry that the sweat rolled down my forehead when I was just standing still.
The fog hung heavy in the air. A severe storm was rolling in, but it passed half north of us and half south. It looked nasty but unfortunately it didn’t rain. What a shame. I was hoping that a rain would knock the yellow ragweed pollen off the plants and glue it to the earth. But no such luck. So, it became just another morning in the Pioneer Graveyard guaranteed to make us sweat and turn our feet yellow.
Besides the yellow ragweed, it looks as if there is a profusion of orange Tiger Lilies blooming in the graveyard as well, but no, they are orange flags blossoming on the site of the actual graves.
The history of our Pioneer Graveyard is not pretty. While it was being used, it was maintained to some degree. It was a one acre plot which research showed could have 500 or more graves in it. It was closed in 1881, because it was ‘unfit’ for a Potter’s field. That is a specified area where people who could pay to be buried, were buried by the municipality.
When the new Tillsonburg Cemetery was opened, ‘the old burying grounds’ was most likely cared for by families of the residents. Once a few decades passed and the families had moved out west or to Windsor for jobs in the new car manufacturing plants, who was left to keep it up? No one.
Photos have surfaced that show the graveyard overgrown with bushes and trees. Two men, today, recalled playing in the tunnels made in the weeds as children not even knowing it was a graveyard.
With a couple of aerial photographs dated by what schools were built and not yet built, I have dated the major change in the layout to 1959-1962. At this time virtually all the tombstones were broken and scattered. No one knew where the actual graves were; where the roadways/pathways were; and what tombstone went where. So they took the broken stones and placed them into cement, in sections about the graveyard.
Of course there doesn’t seem to be any records of what they did. It was most likely in the newspapers and if anyone out there will volunteer to read several years of microfilm for me, we might get some information. Unfortunately I get migraines from the angle you read with the microfilm machines.
In reality the new layout was about the only thing they could do with the mess they had. The problem is, people are coming now expecting to find great-great-grandpa’s tombstone at his grave site. If they are lucky there is still a tombstone, however we are finding that a great majority of those buried have no tombstone at all. The research is now showing that ‘g-g-grandpa’ is there, for sure, as there is a tombstone, but what happened to ‘g-g-grandma’ and their son ‘William’ who died so young? Well, they are there somewhere. All we can do now is find out who is supposed to be in that graveyard.
Every time Simcoe Street gets widened a few more graves must be moved, but where can they move them to in this graveyard? Ground imaging radar has been used in some areas of the graveyard, so they would know. This was state of the art stuff, like on the CSI television programs! However, the excitement of seeing one of those images dissipated quickly when I realized the brick crypt we discovered didn’t even show up on it.
So, we asked for help from someone who knows graves, Mae Leonard of Otterville, whom you would have read about a week ago in the Tillsonburg News. Mae has worked with archaeologist and experts, and her grave dowsing – although perhaps not perfect (as she would say) – tells us what we need to know.
So those delightful orange flags you see are the graves. Slowly emerging, as more are dowsed and marked, are the roadways needed for the horses, hearse and carriages to transport the caskets and people to the burial site.
That spurred the memory that in the ‘60s-70s there was some kind of arch at the entrance, about where the hydro transformer sits today. Do you remember it?
This week Mae finished dowsing the Founder’s Plot which houses Tillsons and VanNormans tombstones and is surrounded by the wrought iron fence. The problem was the tombstones in this enclosure didn’t make sense and didn’t seem to be placed properly.
Well, Mae figured that out. The stones were moved there and the fence erected, presumably in the early 1960s. It was a great idea, honouring the two families so instrumental in founding and developing our town.
The problem was… in 1960, they didn’t know where anyone was buried either. There are over 50 graves under the fence and tombstones. Amazing.
Monday morning, in that hot, sultry weather, Dorothy from Subway saw us working on her way to work and brought over water, juice, and cookies. They were most gratefully received and delicious.
As more flags go up, more people are noticing and helping. How wonderful – everyone has been scrubbing stones, dowsing, measuring, and recording. Neighbours have given us water and have offered to cut the lawn between the flags, although Mr. Hovorka may soon regret that offer, with the number of flags going up.
If anyone else would like to help in any way, from microfilming to scrubbing, please let me know: 519-842-9416. Tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 7 at 9 a.m. is our next scrub day. Please call or drop out.