Unmarked graves lie in path of quarry Methodism: Arundel Corp., preservationists negotiate over Carroll County site, where early American converts were buried.

October 23, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

To pilgrims seeking the roots of the American Methodist Church, a historic farm in Carroll County's rolling, fertile Wakefield Valley holds a treasure: graves of the church's pioneers.

To Arundel Corp., the farm offers something more lucrative: the site for a marble quarry.

At issue in this peaceful valley, which stretches from Westminster west to Frederick County, is the preservation of one of the sites where American Methodism began two centuries ago -- where an immigrant evangelist preached and baptized converts and where early church members are buried.

"We're very rich here in our Methodist heritage, but it can slip away, and once it's gone, you can't get it back," said Daniel Hartzler, president of Strawbridge Shrine Association, which maintains a nearby historic site that includes a replica of a log meetinghouse, the first Methodist building in America. "We would lose our roots."

The 126-acre Andrew Poulson farm was bought by the Sparks-based Arundel Corp. in 1986. The company plans to begin a quarry operation there by 2001.

Although sympathetic to the concerns of the church and preservationists, Arundel says it has to mine where nature put the limestone. The soil in the valley is underlaid by an estimated 4,000 acres of Wakefield marble, a limestone used in road gravel.

What complicates the issue is that no one is sure where the cemetery is. Any stone or fence that marked it is gone. The gravestones, removed decades ago, are piled at a nearby church, also a Methodist historic site.

The graves would likely have been bulldozed when Arundel Corp. opened its 57-acre quarry pit but for the efforts of Karen Dattilio, a local historian and cemetery preservationist.

Dattilio, who has spent years identifying and trying to preserve family cemeteries in Carroll and Frederick counties, insisted that the Poulson farm contained a cemetery and that it lay in the path of the proposed quarry.

"Historically, the Poulson cemetery should be much more valuable [than the limestone] because Methodism started there. What's going to happen to that hallowed hollow?" she said.

Methodists consider the Poulson farm hallowed ground because it is where immigrant evangelist Robert Strawbridge preached under a large oak tree, baptized converts in a stream and formed the second American "class meeting," a lay group for prayer, confession and counseling. The Poulson farmhouse survives. The oak tree died early this century, but another was planted in its place in 1934.

History doesn't record why Strawbridge and his wife, Elizabeth, left Ireland for a rented log cabin and 50 acres at the western edge of Wakefield Valley about 1760. The evangelist left Elizabeth to plant crops while he preached his religious faith on a circuit of neighboring farms.

While he was gone, she made the first convert for the new church, a neighbor named John Evans. Evans' brother in-law, Andrew Poulson, soon joined.

Poulson died in 1807 and was buried on the farm. At least seven other family members -- all believed to be converts -- are also buried on the property, said Ralph E. Poulson of Worthington, Ohio, a direct descendant of Andrew Poulson.

He does not oppose relocating the graves if Arundel arranges a dignified reburial.

"The cemetery has already been desecrated once before by the removal of the headstones," he said.

Arundel Corp. officials at first didn't believe the property contained a cemetery but now say they will follow legal procedures for removing the bodies and reburying them on the farm.

Archaeologist Joseph W. Hopkins III narrowed the probable gravesite to 10 acres. The cemetery is not historically significant enough to require it to be left in place, Hopkins concluded in a report to Maryland Historical Trust.

"There are a number of other, better preserved resources in the area from the same period and ethnic group. The Poulson family cemetery is pretty much as run of the mill as any white cemetery from the late 18th and first half of the 19th century," the report said.

Arundel and Maryland Historical Trust are working on a memorandum of agreement that would cover how the graves would be treated once they are found.

Owen Neighbours, an Arundel geologist and spokesman, declined to say whether the relocated grave would be open to the public.

Nearby, the Strawbridge Shrine, which includes the Strawbridge house, the John Evans house and a replica of the log meetinghouse, attracts several hundred visitors a year.

"In the springtime, I have bus load after bus load of people coming in," said the Rev. Charles Acker, shrine curator.

Neighbours said the relocated graveyard would be a historic preservation improvement.

"When we move it you will have something that is definitely identifiable," he said.

The removal of the headstones decades ago remains a mystery.

Mildred Harmon, president of a board that oversees a Methodist graveyard at the nearby historic Stone Chapel, recalls hearing that two church members retrieved the stones in an effort to preserve them. No record of the move has been found.

"We took them so they wouldn't be destroyed," she said.

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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