Touring Tillsonburg's history past October 12

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Over 1,300 of the lost have been found and have come home.

Well, actually they were not really lost, but that old adage, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ has been too true. For over 60 years, there have only been 110 tombstones or pieces of tombstones in Tillsonburg’s Pioneer Cemetery. We don’t know how many decades it took after the cemetery was closed in 1881 to lose track of 1,200 gravestones.

Quite a few actually, would have been wooden crosses which would have disintegrated within, maybe 10 years, while others when broken, were never repaired and lost.

Why? What happened to them being cared for in perpetuity? It seems what happened to our first cemetery happened to many others. While it was open for business it was kept up, but after, when they were full and immediate families were gone, they were forgotten. It was the new burying ground that mattered.

Here in town, all eyes were on the new Tillsonburg Cemetery Company. The June 4, 1880, Tilsonburg Observed noted: ‘Residents of Tilsonburg and farmers in the adjoining townships will be pleased to learn that there will soon be a new cemetery in this town where family lots can be secured and fenced and beautified according to the taste of the purchaser. It is the intention of the Directors to have the grounds laid out in a picturesque style and beautify it by planting trees and shrubbery, with fine well gravelled carriage drives and foot paths intersecting it, making it a place which citizens may with pride show to visitors. So soon as the land is surveyed and ready for sale due notice will be given, when parties desiring to purchase can secure family plots.’

Family plots are mentioned twice in that article. Many of the original cemeteries did not allow the purchase of family plots. You didn’t have a lot of choice. When someone died, they got the next grave in the row. It looks as if our Pioneer Cemetery was like that, for when Mae Leonard was dowsing all those graves, she noted that our cemetery was unusual in that were no empty plots in any of the rows.

By our standards today, most of these graves are very small, but then not everyone could afford a coffin and would be buried in a shroud. One section starts with 14 graves in a row, yet before long there were 19 graves in the same row length.

Today we cannot imagine what it was like when diseases like cholera, diphtheria, consumption (tuberculosis), smallpox, measles, scarlet fever and others swept through a community.

Our Pioneer Cemetery tells the story by the sudden change in grave size to get more in a row, by putting two children in one grave and having several rows of only children.

Since the flags began appearing in the Pioneer Graveyard, I have been inundated with questions. What are they for? Why different colours? Why are you dowsing the graves? As mentioned in a previous article, we originally were dowsing (divining), triangulating measurements and plotting every grave, marking them with an orange flag, until we realized the magnitude of the project. We then started doing rows, marking the beginning and end graves with a yellow/greenish flag, although we did count the graves in each row and mark children with the orange flags. The blue flags were done by our ‘dowser in training.’ If they were correct, (checked when Mae did the row), the flags were left in.

As to why we spent countless hours dowsing the graves and mapping out the graveyard? Because there was an overwhelming need to know. To know how many people could be buried in a one-acre plot in 43 years. How it was laid out? Who were the families in this graveyard? Was the Founder’s Plot within the wrought iron fence original? And the next time they expand Simcoe Street where could they re-inter the graves which will need to be moved?

In a couple of weeks, once all the measuring and mapping is complete and double checked, we have to remove the flags and the past will be hidden once more. Why don’t you come out and see the original road system, needed for horses and hearse and wagons to get to gravesites. I will take everyone on a tour of the graveyard and explain what we did and how we did it. We can talk about the families we know that are buried here, (from the 110 tombstones we have), you may find that one is your great-great-grandparent!

If your family has been here forever and you think they should be in the graveyard, let me know. Several people have stopped to chat while we were working and we now know a few more of the 1,200 missing names. We desperately want to find as many of those as possible before a large index stone with all the names is put up.

Come to the Pioneer Graveyard Saturday October 12th at 11 a.m., and I will give you tour and you can learn the past, present and future plans for the eternal resting place of members of Tillsonburg’s first families.



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