If only the tombstones in the Pioneer Graveyard could talk.
They cannot, of course, but Laurel Beechey can, and this past Saturday morning she shared some of the town's local pioneer history with about 15 people who took Beechey's 90-minute guided tour of Tillsonburg's Pioneer Graveyard, which was in use from 1838-1881.
With help from dousing expert Mae Leonard of Otterville, many of the 1,667 graves, which hold approximately 1,706 'residents,' were mapped and marked with yellow and orange flags. Beechey said she has information, minimal for some up to 65 pages for others, on all but about 12. There are only 110 visible stones, however, and many of the stones were moved, some of them because of road construction on Simcoe Street, so it's difficult to determine who is exactly where. Or why.
“They figure within 20 years you will not be able to read any of the old stones because of the acid rain,” said Beechey. “So the thing is to preserve the information first, and then as much as we can after. Some people feel it's not worth putting any money into it, but then there's people like me who are 'touchy-feely.' If I have someone in a graveyard, I want to go up and see it. And even if I can't read it, I want to know that's theirs.”
Standing in the northwest corner of the graveyard, Beechey identified the area – with assistance from Leonard – as the Tillson plot.
“It was quite interesting,” said Beechey, “when we were doing the founders' plot down there (in the northeast corner), Mae was very uncomfortable. There's 18 tombstones, but it turns out there's about 50 graves in that area. One day, she came up here, and said 'this is Tamsen here, not down there.' We did this whole plot, and just yesterday I had here back to do more specific names. She doused this as George and Nancy, our founders. Several people have told me there were tall monuments up at this end, not down there. It makes sense, George overlooking the whole valley he owned. If you look at where the road is now, they would have had to be moved too. So presumably, these 11 plots were moved over there with the VanNormans.”
Moving on to the founders' plot, Beechey also discussed tombstone decorations and verses.
“This one has an anchor on it, which means 'hope.' It doesn't mean he was a sailor. We're now getting all the verses off the bottom. It's amazing, if you can get about four words of the verses you can Google it – tombstone verses – and a few words, especially in a row, the whole verse will come up.”
About five or six people taking the tour, said Beechey, had ancestors in the graveyard.
“Town Council has asked us, 'do people ever come here?' I was stunned last year when I was out scrubbing stones by how many people wanted to know where 'so-and-so' was. I'm stunned by the amount of people doing this. It's a shame we're missing nearly 1,500 stones.”