Friday, April 26, 2019

Before the memory fades: The history, mystery and controversy of Windham’s Old Quaker Burial Ground – Part II

1906 - Celebrating 50 years of a monthly school meeting
By Walter Lunt

By the 1970s, the tiny cemetery on the corner of Route 202 and Pope Road had grown over with trees and underbrush – literally and figuratively forgotten.

Time had all but erased the existence of Windham’s first Quaker burial ground, located on the piece of land bequeathed by the Town to the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1780.

As discussed in part one of this series (The Windham Eagle - April 12, 2019), a local builder, unaware of the property’s previous “life,” had moved men and equipment on to the hallowed ground to prepare it for the construction of houses or an apartment building. Concerned citizens produced ancient maps from the Windham Historical Society that proved the site was an old burial ground, a Quaker burial ground. Ultimately, the Town of Windham, community volunteers and even the builder joined forces to clear the site, build a fence around it and install signage. What followed would prove to be awkward and somewhat controversial.

A decision was made to give the little cemetery a formal re-dedication. Little consideration was given to the fact that Quakers shunned such celebratory demonstrations, believing such displays to be tawdry, or merely sensational in their appeal. Windham Militia, a re-creation of a Revolutionary War Company (The Windham Eagle – March 29, 2019) announced they would be part of the ceremony by marching and firing off a three-gun salute.

Windham resident Phil Kennard, a member of both the historical society and the militia, protested the idea, reminding militia captain Larry Ziehler that the use of firearms would be antithetical to core Quaker values.

In an email addressed to the Windham Historical Society in 2015, Kennard recounted the episode, writing “I (decided) to sit this one out. I arrived in civilian dress. Capt. Zeihler (led the militia) up Pope Road in parade formation. (He then gave) a call to halt. ‘Order-Arms-Attention – prepare to salute the dead.’”

Following this, explained Kennard, “…the normal sequence would be ‘Ready, Aim, Fire.’ But it was not forthcoming. Instead, it was ‘Present Arms.’ Instantly, every man brought his musket into (a) position that denotes respect. And Capt. Ziehler, unsheathing his sword, brought its tip to the toe of his boot and touched his free hand to one of the corners of his cocked hat in a hand salute. He held (the soldiers) to this position until cameras stopped clicking and then, after giving the necessary orders, marched them back from whence they had come, leaving me feeling mighty proud of those boys.”

One reason the cemetery could so easily hide in plain sight for so long is that it is a Quaker, or Friends, burial ground. Early Windham historians referred to this religious sect as peculiar or queer, due to the Friends unusual customs. Their dress was plain; men wore broad-brimmed beaver hats; bonnets were the familiar head gear on women. Both were always seen adorned in drab, colorless clothes. Further, Friends language utilized the archaic form of pronouns: Thee, Thou and Thy. All were sworn to live by the principles of peace, equality, social liberty and strict honesty in all dealings.
Upon their arrival in Windham around 1774, residents thought the Friends behavior odd, but accepted them into the community, even exempting them from the ministerial tax since Quaker worship (or meetings) employed no parson, minister or preacher.

The Friends settled in the center of Windham and established themselves as honest, prosperous contributors to the community. They were merchants, farmers, blacksmiths and mill owners.
The first Friends Meeting House was built shortly after their arrival at the corner of Swett and Gray (route 202) Roads. Education was a high priority, so a two-story academy for “higher learning” was added. Little else is known about these early Quakers.

The present Friends Meeting House, built in 1849, is located on route 202 (near the present-day Public Safety Building). Almost adjacent to the church is the second burial ground – the Friends Cemetery, almost hidden on forest ground under tall pine trees. Ancient headstones record the generations of Quakers that populated the Windham Center village of Popeville, named for one of the earliest settled families.

But this story does not end with the 1972 re-dedication of the Old Quaker Burial Ground. At this time, more old-timers were exchanging more memories about mysterious voices emanating from the old cemetery. Some even maintained that bodies were exhumed and reburied at the Friends Cemetery several hundred feet away, possibly to straighten Pope Road where it crossed 202. We’ll examine those stories in part III, next time. <

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