Genealogy project restores history

Volunteers collect information from graves

Carroll County

October 05, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

At a cemetery near the Carroll-Frederick county border, Phyllis Hammond gazes at a tombstone marking the grave of a man believed to be a relative from generations before.

In the Fairview United Methodist Church cemetery lies Sebastian "Boss" Hammond, a former slave, who could not read but nevertheless chiseled the words "Sacred to the memory of" on more than a hundred tombstones, including the one that would be his own. He specialized in elaborate lettering on the green-black metabasalt he quarried from his 70-acre farm. With his earnings, he bought the place - and freedom for himself, his wife, their 11 children and a grandchild.

The leader of a genealogy project that is recording information from county tombstones noticed Hammond's distinctive work and learned more about the man who produced it. She passed on her findings to his likely descendant, who says she was touched to learn of this connection to her past.

"I was just overwhelmed. I just felt so blessed that this came into my life," said Hammond, former head of the Carroll chapter of the NAACP. Boss Hammond's story is one of many brought to light during a long-running project by a hardy core of about two dozen volunteers. Since its founding in 1981, the Carroll County Genealogical Society has worked to record information from county burial sites, from single stones to cemeteries of several thousand graves.

This month, the group expects to finish its outdoor work at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Cemetery in Taneytown - the last geographic section of the county to be recorded, said Mary Ann "Mimi" Ashcraft, head of the Carroll County Genealogical Society's inscription committee.

With that completed, the society will have written down more than 64,000 inscriptions, occasionally with a computer but most often by hand - using a clipboard to record names and dates, along with notes about the stones, verses and cemetery histories. Ashcraft's mother, Nancy Paret Ashcraft, 95, of Wilmington, Del., did many sketches for the books.

After the fieldwork, the information is organized by cemetery and surname, Mimi Ashcraft said. Information from the northwestern cemeteries will make up Volume 7, and volunteers plan a compact disk index with additions and corrections.

But the job has been extended by at least a year, because the society has been asked to record information from the Westminster Cemetery, with about 3,000 names, she said.

Genealogy has been the driving force for inscription projects all over the United States since the 1960s and 1970s, said John J. Spaulding of Manchester, Conn., the research clearinghouse coordinator for the international Association for Gravestone Studies in Greenfield, Mass. But the work began formally decades earlier, with a national project by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1920s and a Depression-era project by the federal Works Progress Administration in 1934.

"Millions of inscriptions have been recorded, and more day by day, in every state," Spaulding said.

"It just goes on," agreed Robert W. Barnes of Perry Hall, first vice president and program chairman of the Anne Arundel County Genealogical Society and formerly with the Baltimore County society. States, counties, cities and even individual cemeteries have published multiple volumes of inscriptions and other records, he said, rattling off a long list from around Maryland.

Barnes, who taught in Baltimore from 1959 to 1995, and has wielded a clipboard himself, said, "As a history teacher, I think family history is as valid as any other.

"The Carroll County group has been going at it very systematically," said Barnes, who is familiar with the project.

The Carroll group has published six volumes, one in two books for the north-central area, and expects the seventh to be published next year, Ashcraft said.

The Westminster Cemetery will require its own volume, she said.

"It's just shy of 12 acres," said George A. Billingslea, the recently retired president of the Westminster Cemetery Co. and a history enthusiast with deep roots in the city who now lives in Parkville. He said he asked the genealogical society to take over the task for which he had collected more than a century of records.

The cemetery began in 1790 on 1 acre off Church Street at the Frederick Union Meeting House, Billingslea said. This was a log-cabin church shared by all the Protestant denominations before they built their own.

Westminster Mayor Kevin E. Dayhoff, a member of the cemetery board, said, "The Westminster Cemetery is just nothing but heritage, tradition and history. I get a lot of value out of cemeteries. They always tell you stories: There's heartbreak, there's triumph, the heritage of families - the core fiber of the community."

Ashcraft said members of her group were "delighted" to get the OK to survey the cemetery. They expect to be out in the spring.

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