Students trace history to save old graveyard

April 11, 1995|By Victor Paul Alvarez | Victor Paul Alvarez,Contributing Writer

They are only 12 years old, but they speak for the dead.

Jenny McWhorter, a sixth-grader at Clarksville Middle School, discovered a cemetery hidden in the thick brush of woods behind her house two years ago. She shared the secret with three friends and Pat Greenwald, the gifted and talented resource teacher at the school.

In that program, students are encouraged to investigate a problem that interests them and develop a solution. Given the amount of development in the county, Jenny said the cemetery seemed a perfect candidate for investigation.

"We don't want it to get bulldozed," she said.

They even don't want you to know exactly where the cemetery is.

"They're serious about that," Mrs. Greenwald said. "In the past, when historical sites have been pointed out, there's been vandalism."

This much can be said: The cemetery is cloaked in heavy woods near the school on Trotter Road.

"When you first see it, you don't realize how important it is. I saw a rusty fence, three or four feet high in the woods, off a path," the teacher said.

That fence stands on a 20-inch stone wall, as specified by William Simpson, who died in 1823 and left detailed plans for the cemetery in his will. He wanted a place where his family could rest in peace.

More than 150 years later, you'd barely see the cemetery if you were standing in it.

The 50 square feet bounded by a rusted and broken iron fence are thoroughly covered in foliage.

In between the fallen trees and overgrowth are six simple, Gothic headstones dating back to 1823.

Jenny and her friends Erin Cohen, Maria Masciantonio and Tanya Rutner decided the people buried there deserved better.

"We looked it up at the courthouse," Jenny said of the Simpson will. "It was strange. We were reading the will, and it described exactly what the graveyard looked like. It was like nothing had changed."

Their investigation also led them to Clyde Pyers of the Howard County Genealogical Society.

The society traces family histories.

"Cemeteries happen to be a source of information that many people have found very useful," Mr. Pyers said. "We have identified about 170 cemeteries in Howard County, some of them are just one grave. We didn't know about this one."

Mr. Pyers helped the girls get in touch with the right people to protect their discovery and last December they were invited to give a presentation to the County Council.

"I had to stand on my toes the whole time to reach the microphone," Erin said. "I testified in front of the council and gave them the history of the graveyard."

The council was impressed by their efforts, and the girls plan to meet with Dave Holden, a county planner, to get the cemetery listed on the county's registry of historical sites.

After that, they'll try to clean up the site.

When they meet with county officials next time, they will not be empty-handed.

Since this rescue mission began, they have assembled a book that details the history of the cemetery, includes a transcript of the Simpson will and has color photographs of the six visible stones.

"We didn't want everything in Howard County that dated back that far to get bulldozed over because some big office wanted to sit there," Erin said.

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