Friday, May 17, 2019

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

By Walter Lunt

This is the final in a series of three articles on Old Quaker Burial Ground.

Cemeteries cannot talk. But they do tell stories. This old adage may not apply fully to Quaker, or Friends, burial grounds.

As we learned in parts I and II of this series, the burying ground of Windham’s earliest Quakers had grown over and virtually disappeared by the mid twentieth century. Only when a local builder began clearing the property in the early 1970s did some “old-timers” speak up and save the site. Thus, the Old Quaker Burial Ground, located on the corner of Pope Road and Route 202 – which dated from 1780 – was preserved, cleaned up and rededicated.

Unmarked field stone grave markers
In part II, we asked, “How could a cemetery simply disappear?” The answer lies principally with the unusual customs and beliefs of this religious society, formed in England in the 1650s as a protest to the puritanical Church of England. Some believed the Church to be a false doctrine driven by personal pride. They would become the Society of Friends, and they held a deep belief in human equality, in life and in death. To that end, Quakers felt that grandiose tombstones were meant to elevate a person’s importance or dominance. To counter what they termed this “puffed-up vanity,” members of the Friends persuasion were interred in unbroken expanses of ground marked only by fieldstones.  By the 1800s, simple, unadorned headstones limited in height and width, and marked only with the deceased name and dates of birth and death were allowed. Both types, buried under decades of tree growth and earth, were evident in the Quaker burying ground at Windham Center.

By the early twentieth century, and with the advent of the automobile, many locals were complaining about the layout of the Pope Road/Route 202 intersection. Vehicles traveling through on Pope Road could not proceed directly across 202. Instead, it was necessary to turn on to 202, drive a short distance, and turn again in order to stay on Pope. The reason: one end of the cemetery extended tens of feet farther to the south than it does today.

At the behest of the Town, local resident Nathan Allen moved some of the marked headstones to the newer Friends Cemetery nearer the Friends Meeting House (church) a few hundred feet away on 202. He then proceeded to dig up the south portion of the old cemetery down to below frost level for the road we drive over today.

Interviewed by a reporter for the Portland Evening Express in 1972, Allen’s daughter, Natalie, confirmed the move, and added that her father told her, “…he never would do anything like (that) again.”

In an eerie side-note, the late Windham history buff Phil Kennard once wrote that “a family who lived a short way up the street from (the Old Quaker Burial Ground) said sometimes in the dead of night they heard voices, but upon investigation could find no one in the vicinity.” He was presumably referring to a time following the cemetery dig.

Clipping off portions of burial grounds to build thoroughfares was rare, but not unusual in earlier times.

In his 2017 book “Portland’s Historic Eastern Cemetery – A Field of Ancient Graves”, historian Ron Romano recounts the fate of the southern end of the city’s oldest burial ground near the foot of Munjoy Hill. Following the Great Fire of 1866, “…the city decided to clear the land and extend Federal Street from downtown to Munjoy Hill. In the process, some of the original hillside of the old Burying Ground was carved away….”

Romano says the debate among historians continues regarding the possible removal of human remains, but adds, “I do believe (given the great amount of earth removed) that some decomposed remains of early settlers were taken away…”

Given Nathan Allen’s earnest vow to never repeat such a removal project again, it would seem plausible the same thing might have occurred at the Windham site.

And given that Windham has over two dozen other cemeteries and numerous private burial sites, it also seems reasonable to assume that while they do not talk, many stories still remain.  <

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