Hillsborough cemetery cleanup unearths hidden history

mschultz@newsobserver.comJune 12, 2014 

  • How to help

    A second cleanup will take place from 9 a.m. to noon June 21.

    Volunteers should wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, as well as closed-toe shoes. Bring gloves, garden shears, rakes, and brushes, and join us at the Old Town Cemetery. Water will be provided by the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.

    For more information or to RSVP call Michael Verville at the Hillsborough Visitors Center at 919-732-7741.

  • ‘A Burwell Homecoming’

    The Burwell School Historic Site will hold “A Burwell Homecoming” from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday to celebrate those who studied, lived and worked on the Burwell property (1821-1963).

    The program features guest speakers, demonstrations and a keynote by author Lee Smith, whose novel “Agate Hall” was inspired by the diary of a young girl who attended the former boarding school, at 319 N. ChurtonSt.

    Tickets cost $20, and children 12 and under are free. Tickets may also be purchased at the door. Parking will be available thanks to Mt. Bright Baptist Church, 211 W. Union St.

    To register, call 919-732-7451 or go to burwellschool.org/homecoming

— Archaeologist Ken Ostrand has excavated tombs of the pharaohs.

He’s led excavations to Pompeii and Monte Testaccio, where the ancient Romans disposed of the amphorae or vessels that held the massive olive oil imports used to fuel a city of 1 million people.

On Saturday, he crouched in the grass of the Old Town Cemetery and saw, for the first time in no one knows how long, the headstone of a young Hillsborough man who died before his 20th birthday.

“In memory of John Gallway,” the worn marker read, “(who) died 25th of April 1820 in the 19th year of his age.”

The marker may have been 200 instead of 2,000 years old, but for the retired professor and educational group leader, it was just as exciting as his classical discoveries. Before the weekend cleanup, Gallway’s resting place and the graves of several others buried in the 1757 cemetery had lain shrouded in weeds and vines, lost to time.

The markers – four headstones and several smaller footstones – emerged as 52 volunteers cut low-lying branches, wrestled stubborn vines from tree trunks and weeded overgrown plots.

“Who says cemeteries aren’t happening places?” a beaming Ostrand asked.

The Old Town Cemetery, at Churton and Tryon Streets beside Hillsborough Presbyterian Church (1815) contains 186 marked graves, according to the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.

It is one of three town-maintained cemeteries, including the Hillsborough Town Cemetery off Churton Street between East Corbin Street and U.S. 70, and the Old Slave Cemetery at at 200 S. Occoneechee St., in the historic district that dates to before the Civil War.

The alliance organized Saturday’s cleanup with the town’s tree board, the Hillsborough Garden Club and the Orange County Historical Museum, a WPA project built in 1934 as the Confederate Memorial Library. A second cleanup will be held June 21.

Its stone walls and footpaths shaded by magnolias, the Old Town Cemetery is the resting place of many early leaders not just of Hillsborough but also of the United States.

The land belonged to lawyer William Hooper, one of North Carolina’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence and a man John Adams considered one of the greatest orators of the Continental Congress.

Others include: Scotland-born merchant James Hogg; William Graham, who served as a senator, secretary of the Navy, and governor; and John Berry, a brick mason who built the original Orange County Courthouse, across Churton Street a few blocks away.

At least eight students who attended the neighboring Burwell School for young women between 1837 and 1857 are buried in the cemetery.

“One of them died when she was at the school,” Betty Eidenier said Saturday as she pulled weeds from between slabs in a waist-high stone wall. “She died when she was 13; there was a cholera epidemic that came through.”

Ostrand began quietly clearing brush weeks ago and helped the town see that nature was slowly reclaiming the historic grounds.

“Here we thought we had this nice bucolic cemetery, and he saw it was undergoing real damage,” said Scott Washington, the museum’s assistant director. “He showed (us) where this was really having an effect on the integrity of this important cemetery.”

But it’s not just fun facts that inspire this project, said Ostrand.

Cemeteries remind us of our mortality.

“Someday you’ll be here too,” he said. “And it would be nice if someone showed you a little respect.”

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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