A county front-end loader, weed-killer and workers whose hands itched with poison oak have uncovered a piece of early Lansdowne history that community volunteers hope to refurbish into a local landmark.
A few weeds are the only greenery now amid a mesh of dead brambles and stalks around the white and gray gravestones of the Courseys, a prominent Lansdowne family.
Before the lush undergrowth was cleared, the Coursey family cemetery was untended and largely forgotten despite the role the family played in beginning Lansdowne in southern Baltimore County.
Last year, a group of volunteers began a restoration project with a goal of repairing the toppled headstones.
Wesley Coursey, the first to be buried in the family plot in 1889, once owned an 88-acre farm on the west side of the nearby B&O Railroad tracks. His son, William, who is also buried there, had 52 acres on the east side.
Before Lansdowne was incorporated under its current name in the year of Wesley Coursey's death, it was known as Coursey Station.
The local historical society started tracking Coursey history about two years ago when Associated Catholic Charities announced plans to build housing for the elderly in Lansdowne and to call the project Coursey Station.
Howard Olver, president of the Lansdowne Historical Society, learned of a Coursey family plot but couldn't find it on his 1877 county atlas. One day he followed his curiosity about what was behind a high stone wall set back from a disused loop road off Washington Boulevard.
After picking his way through high brambles, he recalled, "First thing I saw was Coursey."
The name was written on bright white stone in front of 15 family headstones and footstones, which half-filled the enclosed plot. But from the evidence of vandalism and the piles of empty bottles, Olver assumed that derelicts had long preceded him in the discovery. The plot abuts a B. Green food distributorwarehouse in a West Lansdowne neighborhood of warehouses and junkyards.
Olver, a retired postal worker who grew up in Lansdowne, wrote an article about his find in a community newspaper. He got little response, except for a call from Ann Heird, a Coursey descendant who with her cousin holds the deed to the property.
"I always knew it was there," Heird said. Her uncle, who died in 1949, had regularly maintained the family plot, as did other family members after him up until sometime in the 1960s, when the plot fell into "a period of neglect," she said. "Younger people sometimes aren't too interested in those things until they become older."
Heird, who is 69 and lives nearby, is the great-granddaughter of Wesley Coursey. Her grandfather Alexander Coursey, who died in 1927, is the last of her forebears buried in the family plot.
She remembers her mother deciding in the 1940s to let Westinghouse move the cemetery to its current spot after the company bought the land from the farmer who had bought the old Coursey farm.
That's why Olver had trouble finding the family plot from his research in the 1877 atlas. But once he discovered the place, Olver teamed up with Jake Miller, 59, an auction house owner and chairman of the annual Lansdowne Day fair, to raise money and volunteers for the project.
Miller said his organization contributed $1,000 to the effort and has spent $650 so far, mostly in clearing the undergrowth. The work started last year, "then we got poison oak," Miller said, and "all five of us had to go to the hospital."
When the volunteers finished the job last fall, the county hauled away the brush piles in two truckloads. Miller hopes that was the last of the brush to sprout on ground that is now gray with blasted dead stalks. "I put 150 pounds of weed killer in here," Miller said.
He and Olver are now looking for a monument company that might raise the toppled headstones to their pedestals and secure them for a reduced price.
The deed to the plot passes from one Coursey generation to the next in perpetuity, but Olver hopes that with further restoration, grass planting and a new lock on the gate, the site could be opened occasionally to researchers, gravestone rubbers and others who want to survey "a historical place in our community."