Exploring an old cemetery is a bit like leafing through centuries-old documents.
You’re bound to uncover layers of history as you find grave markers for Revolutionary War heroes, town founders and local legends.
Stowe’s Old Yard Cemetery is that way. Bend down to read the faded inscriptions on the weathered headstones and you’ll find a virtual “Who’s Who” of town history.
Stowe founder Oliver Luce — 1765-1852 — is buried there. So are generations of Stowe’s well-known families —Akeleys, Gales, Kelloggs and the like.
Buried there are 33 veterans of the American Revolutionary War, 17 veterans of the War of 1812, and 11 Civil War veterans.
During much of the cemetery’s 207-year history, people were born, lived, and died in the same town, and the Old Yard gradually became sort of a family tree for Stowe’s early settlers.
The cemetery, behind the Akeley Memorial Building on Main Street, is filled with long rows of thin headstones, most blackened with age, some tilting precariously to one side. The oldest ones are cracked and patched together, their inscriptions mostly worn away by centuries of harsh New England weather.
A few unique ones stand out.
A lovely Victorian cast-iron marker commemorates “Little Douglas,” the only son of L.E. and C. Paine.
An impressive monument, carved with a hand pointing upward — signifying a heavenly reward — marks the grave of A.S. Kellogg.
town’s first cemetery
The origin of the Old Yard Cemetery, also known as the Center Cemetery, is rooted in an 18th-century tragedy.
In 1798, Willie Utley, age 12, drowned while attempting to cross a brook near what is now Route 108.
His father, William Utley, donated land for a local burying ground, and young Willie was its first occupant.
Before then, Stowe’s dead were buried on farmsteads, and no official town death records were kept.
It’s estimated that 1,150 people are buried at the Old Yard, including 100 in unidentified graves. The last grave was dug there in about 1915. The Old Yard was officially declared a Historic Stowe Cemetery in 1993 and closed to further burials.
Today, Stowe has six other cemeteries: the Old Ivory Luce Cemetery, the Old Luce Hill Cemetery, the Thomas S. Luce Cemetery, the Riverbank Cemetery, the Sterling Cemetery, and the West Branch Cemetery.
Stowe resident Patricia Haslam is familiar with all of them.
She spent 29 years researching and cataloging every burial place in Stowe for her book, “The Annotated Cemetery Book Stowe Vermont 1798-1998” (Academy Books 1998).
Haslam, a certified genealogical record specialist, began collecting information on Stowe cemeteries to aid her genealogical research.
“Cemeteries hold a massive amount of information,” Haslam said. “They provide a pathway through history. It’s not just family history; it’s social history and medical history and demographics.”
Headstones often provide information beyond names and dates, Haslam said.
“The symbolism on the stones is a study in itself,” Haslam said. “The carvers who made mistakes and the poorer people who were often buried without stones.”
clues to the past
“Cemeteries are not only sacred land to the relatives and friends whose remains rest there; cemeteries have also been the vital history of the communities which they serve,” writes former Stowe Cemetery Commission chair Joy Fagan in a forward to Haslam’s book.
“One need only to wander through older cemeteries or older sections of cemeteries to appreciate the history to be found in such places,” Fagan writes. “Gravestones tell stories of influenza epidemics, the nation’s wars, and the legions of women who died in childbirth.”
The Old Yard Cemetery provides clues about everyday life in 18th- and 19th-century Stowe.
Take, for example, how average lifespans have increased over the years.
Infant mortality rates were high during colonial times, and the dozens of tiny grave markers at Old Yard attest to that. Noah and Polly Churchill buried five children — four boys and a girl — between 1803 and 1811. None of the children lived to celebrate their sixth birthday.
And, in the days before modern medicine, a contagious disease could quickly sweep through a town, wiping out entire families. Uriah and Polly Wilkins lost three children to some illness — was it influenza, dysentery, scarlet fever? — in April 1853. The children are buried together at Old Yard.
While most people consider a peaceful plot at a local cemetery to be an ideal final resting place, others want something different.
Haslam also recorded Stowe’s less conventional burial sites in her book.
Some of Stowe’s dearly departed have requested that their ashes be scattered at a favorite location; Mt Mansfield and the Little River are popular spots.
Others want to create their own private cemeteries. Recently, a Taber Hill couple worked out an agreement with the cemetery commission for a burial site on their land.
The town government is now considering whether to permit private burial sites, and under what circumstances. Both state and local laws allow private burial grounds, as long as the rules are followed.
The von Trapp family has a private plot next to its resort, where visitors can pay their final respects to Maria and some of her less famous relations.
Across town, the Sterling Falls Gorge Cemetery is a private cemetery for the Anderson family in the Sterling Valley. None of the 10 plots has been filled since the cemetery was established in 1994; it’s now a picnic area for visitors to the Sterling Falls Natural Area.