Baltimore Scots reclaim forefather's 19-century graveyard and a bit of history

December 23, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

When Judge Alexander Nisbet's 215th birthday rolls around next June 22, Texas in Baltimore County will echo to the skirl of bagpipes as local Scots gather to remember one of their own -- and not count the cost.

Belying legendary Scottish thriftiness, the St. Andrew's Society of Baltimore -- which the judge helped to found in 1806 -- is tapping its purse for $5,000 to restore the time-ravaged, early 19th-century Nisbet family graveyard and preserve a fragment of Baltimore County history.

The restoration is expected to be completed by spring, with the crumbling stone wall rebuilt, toppled gravestones righted and the section landscaped. It will be dedicated as a memorial park, with a ceremony to honor deceased St. Andrew's presidents, said past president Alfred E. Schudel.

The cemetery lies beside Galloway Avenue, on the grounds of the Century Apartments complex, which was once Montrose, the Nisbet family's 605-acre estate on what was then the York Turnpike in Texas.

The Krupp Realty Co., which owns the property, accepted the St. Andrew's Society's offer to pay for the restoration, said Shari Rider, community director for the complex. "It's history," she said. "You don't want to throw away history."

Once the restoration is complete, her company will maintain the grounds, Ms. Rider said. Periodic stabs have been made at cleaning the long-neglected graveyard, but this will be the first full restoration.

In November 1857, when 80-year-old Judge Nisbet died in a fall from his bedroom window, the St. Andrew's Society chartered a railroad car from Calvert Station to attend the funeral, according to a report in The Sun.

Judge Nisbet, who was brought from Scotland at age 6, was the last survivor of the group of Scots that founded the Baltimore society in 1806, The Sun said.

He was the group's third president and one of its longest-serving, from 1831 until his death, according to society records. The Baltimore St. Andrew's Society is the country's fifth oldest; the oldest was founded in Charleston, S.C., in 1729.

Judge Nisbet spent 40 years on the bench and was the last surviving judge of the Criminal Court of Baltimore appointed under the state's first Constitution, adopted in 1776, The Sun said. The second state charter was adopted in 1851.

The small plot, shaded by oak trees now grown tall, contains the graves of the judge; his wife, Mary Cockey Owings Nisbet, a member of prominent local families who died in 1854; three sons who died as children in 1812, 1813 and 1828; and of 3-year-old Elizabeth Turnbull, whose family apparently lived at Montrose.

The Turnbull stone, whose inscription was recorded in 1908, has disappeared and will be replaced, said Donald D. Darrah of Cockeysville, who is overseeing the project for the society.

Society volunteers undertook a cleanup in 1985 and 1986, after Duncan MacKenzie of Bel Air, then president, received a complaint from a local resident about the condition of the graves.

But eventually the effort petered out. Deterioration continued until last year, when Mr. Darrah and Mr. MacKenzie convinced the society that only an all-out effort -- backed by cash -- would produce proper restoration. The outlay was authorized recently.

"It was in terrible disrepair, and no one else was going to take care of it," Mr. MacKenzie said. "He was one of our long-serving presidents."

Mr. Darrah said he would like to see picnic tables installed in the grassy area around the graveyard for use by the apartment residents, "to make it a small park."

The graveyard is across Galloway Avenue from the County Home Park and the old Alms House, now the county Historical Society.

Having the cemetery restored and maintained should help to protect it from vandalism, Mr. MacKenzie said.

County historian John W. McGrain, who helped provide background information for the society, called the project worthwhile. "It is significant to preserve the grave of a founder of a major organization," he said.

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