Gravestones provide a glimpse into town’s past

By Jennifer Coe - ReminderNews
East Granby - posted Mon., Apr. 8, 2013
John Rusnock spoke to the East Granby Historical Society on his work researching East Granby cemetery gravestones. Photos by Jennifer Coe.
John Rusnock spoke to the East Granby Historical Society on his work researching East Granby cemetery gravestones. Photos by Jennifer Coe.

All for the sake of preserving local history, three men - with the help of a handful of volunteers - have been working on documenting and preserving the graves of centuries-old East Granby residents. While there are upwards of seven cemeteries in town, Tom Howard, John Rusnock and Bill Westervelt presented their findings to the East Granby Historical Society on March 18 on just three: East Granby Cemetery, the so-called “smallpox” cemetery, and Elmwood Cemetery.

Rusnock began with a PowerPoint presentation on his findings about the East Granby Cemetery, once a sheep pasture and then founded as a burying ground in 1722. The earliest gravestone, of which there are 624 in total, is dated 1737.

“It is very difficult, when you look at those stones, to read them,” said Rusnock, as he showed pictures of many stones which were flaking away or falling over.

No plot map existed for the graves, only an alphabetical list circa 1934. Rusnock said that in 2005, two Mormon missionaries came to East Granby looking for community service work. He was able to put them to work creating a valuable database of headstones’ dates, names and general condition. “They worked very diligently for the better part of a summer,” Rusnock said. Serendipitously, a local East Granby teen then offered her services to photograph every headstone as well, making the database complete and thorough.

From the work performed by the Mormon missionaries and the East Granby teen photographs, the East Granby Center Cemetery Marker Inventory report was created.  This report consists of a written narrative, various cemetery photographs, the data base reports, and a CD containing each marker's photograph.

Rumors of a “smallpox” cemetery were well-known in this area. Tom Howard decided he wanted to finally assemble proof that this small cemetery either did or did not exist. “I wondered, ‘Where’s the evidence?’” he said.

Proof was found in a few different places: pre-1940 black and white photographs, land and probate records, even original gravestone rubbings and local anecdotes. “Then it became a question of exactly where were these headstones?” said Howard.

Once the general site was found, it had to be cleared of the brush and trees which had grown over the location. The people who were supposed to be buried there, all from the Holcomb family, had been victims of a smallpox outbreak which lasted from the late 1780s to the mid-1790s. More specifically, four young children all dying months apart buried alongside their grandfather. What clued researchers in to the actual locations of the graves, perhaps as many as 11 or 12, was what Howard called “non-natural falling of rocks.” Small piles of rocks, laid in a group, perhaps to cover over a shallow grave.

Shockingly, the original, missing gravestones had not been claimed by weather or deterioration, but they were discovered to be in a most unexpected place: the basement walls of a home in Bloomfield. According to an article Howard wrote for the Genealogical and History Research Library, “While the headstones left the burial ground, they did not go far and local people knew the story,” said Howard. “The stones ended up in the wall of a workshop in Bloomfield, Connecticut; built and used by an eccentric railroad engineer with eclectic talents and interests, William Eli Talbot… [Talbot] cemented… the Holcomb and Ford smallpox cemetery headstones into the basement wall.”

Three new stones have been created and will be inserted into the location this coming spring.

The Elmwood Cemetery, the most modern of all three which were discussed at the meeting, is the so-called “new kid on the block,” said Bill Westervelt. This is the town cemetery that once could sell 20 plots at a time to one family. “Originally families intended to be here 10 to 20 generations, so they needed 24 or 48 gravesites,” said Westervelt. Elmwood still has plots available, although they sell in two-grave sets now. Elmwood has interred within its grounds a Civil War veteran, many from World War II and even someone from the Philippine Insurrection.

Several years of work on these cemeteries has revealed an interesting history all the way back to the original founding of East Granby. Future research is planned to be done on the Newgate Prison Cemetery and Copper Hill Cemetery.

“This is needed to preserve our history,” said Rusnock. “If not, all will be lost.”

A copy of the East Granby Center Cemetery Marker Inventory is available at the East Granby Public Library.

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