HILLSBOROUGH 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.”
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It may have been 200 instead of 2,000 years old, but for the retired professor and educational group leader, it was just as exciting. Before the weekend clean-up, 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.
“Another one just came up live as we speak,” a beaming Ostrand said. “Who says cemeteries aren’t happening places?”
Historic burial grounds
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 Saturday, June 21.
“Cleaning up the cemetery is something that needs to be done, but we fit it in when we can,” said Ken Hines, director of the town’s seven-person Public Works Department, as he pitched in Saturday. “That’s why it’s important to have volunteers.”
Final resting place
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 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 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.”
When Ostrand looks at headstones he seeks the stories behind them.
The granite used for Graham’s obelisk was shipped from Connecticut, his last name raised in relief at the base that required carving down the stone around it.
“This is frightfully expensive,” he said.
Hooper, the declaration signer, died in 1790, and his grandson began selling plots in 1846.
“He sold this one for 10 bucks, then 10 bucks, then John Berry – he built the old courthouse – paid $12.50,” Ostrand said, counting down the plots. “Then Graham came along – he had to pay $60.”
But it’s not just fun facts that inspire this project, said Ostrand, who reads memorial inscriptions as a hobby
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.”