Towson cemetery in poor condition Graveyard: No one seems to have the time or the money to look after the historic burial ground that is said to be the final resting place of 18 Towson family members.

March 20, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

They've been dead for more than a century, but some of Towson's founding fathers and mothers are in the limelight again.

Their tiny family cemetery a resting place for the Towsons, Schmucks and Shealeys who pioneered the Baltimore County outpost is about to be overshadowed by a proposed five-level parking garage connected to the redeveloped Hutzler's building.

And no one is quite sure what to do with the old graveyard, now strewn with weeds and litter.

Descendants of the families are either aging or live too far away to care for it. The community has taken only a sporadic interest over the years. And developer David G. Rhodes of Heritage Properties says he is too busy with his $25 million Hutzler's renovation project to focus on the cemetery.

"It's been vandalized. It's been cleaned up. It's been vandalized. It's been cleaned up," said 67-year-old Adelaide Bentley, who grew up in the Northeast Towson neighborhood.

A murky property title has left the cemetery an anomaly in a growing commercial area that once was the rural playground for settler Ezekiel Towson's 12 children. In the early 1700s, Ezekiel and his brother Thomas built a log cabin in the once desolate spot where Susquehannough Indians hunted where the old Towson Theater now stands.

And so began the town, which became the county seat in the 1850s and has grown ever since. Little remains of its early history, except for the cemetery that some believe is the burial spot of 18 Towson family members, including Catherine Towson Schmuck, a daughter of Ezekiel's, and her granddaughter Mary Ann Shealey, a strong-willed forebear of the existing clan.

Great-great-granddaughter Darlene Dail, 61, of Dundalk remembers accounts that Mary Ann was a religious woman who shockingly had her ailing husband declared insane, took over the Shealey property and became a hard-working store owner.

One of the few documented references about Mary Ann is in an 1855 newspaper article that recounts: "It was the place where the late Mary A. Shealey kept a small store, where the boys bought marbles, candy, cakes, etc., and the older boys bought cigars, two for a cent."

Before her death in 1887, Mrs. Shealey also cared for wounded soldiers during the Civil War, donated land for a local Methodist church and was involved in starting the county's first school for blacks, the family said.

But there are no clues of where Mary Ann Shealey for whom the street is named, though misspelled "Shealy" was laid to rest in the cemetery.

All but one tombstone has been destroyed. Beer bottles and trash litter the unkempt grass. And a portion of the black iron fence was flattened by a wayward truck.

Only Catherine's tombstone remains intact, although its chiseled inscription is fading with time. It barely can be discerned that she was born Nov. 30, 1767, and died Dec. 27, 1834.

The biggest mystery, however, is who if anyone owns the parcel that once belonged to the Towson family and relatives.

"It was never conveyed. It is in limbo ownership," said John McGrain, who researched the deed and is executive secretary of the county Landmarks Preservation Commission.

By law, Mr. Rhodes, developer of the Hutzler's project, cannot build on top of the cemetery. So he must incorporate the graveyard next to his block-long, 800-car garage.

But preservationists wonder if any bodies are buried beyond the fence.

"As a condition for getting an excavation permit, there should be a survey dig," said Judith S. Kremen of the Baltimore County Historical Trust.

James Purman of the Coalition to Preserve Maryland Burial Sites agrees the site is worth saving. "It has a very nice presence with the trees. And the fence gives it definition," he said.

There are about 290 cemeteries of all sizes in Baltimore County. But many have been lost forever, Mr. Purman said.

"The majority of small cemeteries have disappeared under parking lots," he said.

Mr. Purman, whose nonprofit group tries to protect cemeteries, says the plots are important links to our past. "They're very special artifacts. I feel that everyone who has lived deserves nTC some kind of recognition from the world we live in."

But some families don't have the money or inclination to protect cemeteries. Ms. Kremen says it is especially challenging without a perpetual care fund and trustees.

Helen Shealey of Hamilton, whose deceased husband, Harry, was a descendant, said she has tried to clean up the graveyard but her 84 years are taking their toll. She and her 78-year-old sister-in-law, Adele Shealey Markel of Rosedale, went there last year, but the 2 1/2 -foot-high grass was too much for the elderly women to clip with garden shears.

"I'm tired," Mrs. Shealey said, adding that her worst fear is that someone will dig up the graves. "It really needs something done that would make us proud."

Younger members of the family are strapped, too. They either work long hours, care for young children or commute from Fallston and Glen Burnie.

A resigned Mrs. Shealey said, "The older it gets, the more inclined I am to believe that no one will know about it."

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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