Karen Dattilio's mother once told her about a small family cemetery somewhere behind a corncrib on farmland her great-grandparents had owned in Franklinville.
Snarling dogs deterred Dattilio's first attempt to look for the site, which had long since passed from her family's hands. When she again visited the land in southwestern Carroll County this month, the dogs were tethered, and Dattilio found a young woman, pregnant and due any day, whose family has been renting the ramshackle farmhouse and trailer for about 20 years.
No, the young woman said, there were no cemeteries there. But, as Dattilio got to talking about her work as president of the Carroll County Genealogical Society scouring the county for forgotten family cemeteries, the young woman suddenly fixed on the word "tombstones."
Yes, the woman said, there were a few tombstones out back. Hoping the walk would start the labor of childbirth, she led Dattilio to the foot of a 20-foot cedar stump jutting between the rusted hull of a flatbed truck and an empty, rotting corncrib. Dattilio rubbed the dirt from a smooth slate stone lying flat in the ground that said:
"In memory of Barbarry Porter who departed this life Oct. 21, 1829, aged 23 years 1 mo., 2 days."
Dattilio, 35, was close to tears.
"My great-grandfather's wife was Mary Catherine Porter," she said, and this had to be a relative. After years of finding and cataloging the abandoned graves of other people's ancestors, Dattilio had discovered the grave of a forebear of her own. "Oh my God, I found my ancestor finally at a cemetery," she said.
Another stone marked the memory of Nancy S. Porter, dead in 1822 at age 45. Other stone fragments pieced together marked the grave of yet another Porter -- the first name was obscured -- who died the same year at 6 months of age. Fieldstones around the tree suggested the remains of a boundary.
Dattilio would add this site to the Genealogical Society's records of about 225 known cemeteries in Carroll. About 150 of them are small family plots that the society is trying to protect from the backhoe and the plow.
Through investigations of groves that farmers appear to have plowed around, searches of county records and secretive referrals from county natives who want no harm to come to gravesites they remember playing around as children, the society has steadily built a catalog of cemeteries since 1982.
It has divided the county into seven zones and published volumes on all known plots in two of them. In just those two sections of the county, the society figures 28 of 77 known cemeteries have been lost.
To stem the loss, the society has drafted a bill, sponsored by the county's delegation to the General Assembly, that would require county landowners to record any gravesites on their property in Circuit Court and to give written notice of those sites to any prospective buyer. The society touts the bill as historical preservation of records, written in stone.
Grave markings might be the only clue, for instance, to the existence of a child born in 1862 who died a year later, between the taking of the census every 10 years. There were no birth or death certificates then, said Harold Robertson, who drafted the society's bill.
"The only record on earth of that child might be on that tombstone," he said.
To preserve those records, "practically every county genealogical society in the state is copying cemetery inscriptions as fast as they can go," said Mary K. Meyer, founder of the Genealogical Council of Maryland. But the Carroll society, and Howard County's years earlier, are the only ones she knows that have carried their preservation efforts as far as the General Assembly.
RACE AGAINST CHANGE
Genealogists understand their graveyard research as a race against rapid changes in land use.
Dattilio and her colleagues in the Carroll society can't drive by a telltale clump of cedars on a bare hillock without stopping the car to investigate or at least making a mental note to check land records on the site later.
A hill was the preferred location for a family graveyard. Often the site was planted with long-lived cedars and covered with green periwinkle vines.
Many of the abandoned cemeteries are too overgrown for developers' surveyors to notice, said Bart Mathews of the county Bureau of Development Review, though Dattilio and others in the society believe many developers would prefer not to notice the sites and alter their plans.
By referring to the society's topography maps marked with all known cemetery sites, in addition to checking the developers' surveys, "everyone is much more aware of cemeteries and protecting those," Mathews said.
Evidence of that trend appears in the Rattlesnake Ridge land the town of Hampstead annexed last year for a high-density housing development.