WAS FAMILY GRAVEYARD FLATTENED? - TOWN RESIDENTS SAY LANDOWNER BULLDOZED OLD BURIAL PLOT
Syracuse Herald American (NY) - Sunday, July 16, 1989
Author: Mary Fran Gleason Staff Writer
A tiny piece of land that was bulldozed by a sawmill owner in this sparsely populated eastern Oswego County town may have been an old family burial plot.
But Tim Engst claims no one ever told him that.
"People were up in arms. They still are," said Dick Gorksi, whose wife, Glenna, is the town historian.
The patch of land -- no larger than a 15-foot square -- lies along what is known as CC Road. On May 25, a small mound of dirt covering what is believed to be an old family cemetery disappeared.
People in Williamstown have accused sawmill owner Engst of deliberately bulldozing the cemetery.
"I think it's terrible what he did," said Town Clerk Amy Joyner.
Engst, who lives on Redfield Road, owns 160 acres of land containing the supposed cemetery.
Engst's son, Terry, said several residents threatened to throw his father in jail.
Though Engst couldn't be reached for comment, his wife, Joan, said the family had used the bulldozer to do some excavation work. The mound of dirt no one ever told them was a cemetery was in the dozer's way, she said.
"Nobody ever said anything to us that it was a cemetery. For years it was just a flat spot beside a butternut tree," Joan Engst said.
But a few residents aren't buying that explanation -- especially, they say, since the square patch of land was enclosed by a 4-foot-high wire fence since 1984. It had also been marked by a yellow diamond highway sign that read "Cemetery Entrance."
Nobody knows what happened to the sign. It disappeared about a year ago. But the fencing was still there two months ago when the bulldozer made its visit.
A few posts still jut out of the ground near a small clump of trees were the bulldozer stopped. At least three sets of bulldozer tracks are still visible.
Joan Engst admitted improvements had been made to the patch of land since she and her husband bought the old Wild farm in 1981.
But, she said, no one from the town had ever discussed the fencing. The Engsts just drove by one day and there it was.
"We didn't think it was worth raising a fuss about. The whole thing was a bit ridiculous," she said.
It is widely believed the now flat patch of land was the Aird family cemetery.
Henry Wild of Pulaski, whose family owned a farm on the CC Road from 1913 to 1955, remembered his parents telling him never to play in the cemetery. Wild and his wife Ellen continued to live on the farm after they were married. Ellen Wild said she would pick up fallen pieces of the stone wall and toss them into the plot.
Henry Wild's sister, Ursula Meier, 84, of Altmar, also recalled her parents' warning.
"I can remember as plain as yesterday. There was a cemetery there. It was square with a stone wall around it. And there were flat stones on the ground, but with no names or anything. We were not allowed to play there," Meier said.
Marie Parson, a Halfshire Historical Society member, said she also clearly remembers the spot as a little graveyard when she began a cemetery census in the eastern part of Oswego County in 1980.
Parson said she has a photograph of flat field stones sticking out vertically from the ground at the site. Unfortunately, she said, she didn't record the area in her census.
It was not uncommon for graves to be marked with field stones in the 19th century, Parson said. In those days, people simply couldn't afford a gravestone. Over the years, the fragile stones probably crumbled away. Any old inscriptions would have become prey to modern day elements, like acid rain, she said.
It is said the tiny graveyard was the final resting place for at least four Aird children. The story goes the children died during an outbreak of dyptheria, a widespread disease in the mid-19th century.
Local lore says the children were buried hurriedly -- and at night -- to curb the spread of the contagion. But local historians have had a difficult time proving it.
Historians know, through old deeds and censuses, that a Williamstown miller by the name of James Ayres was listed in the 1850 census. His age is listed at 34. A woman named Mary, presumed to be Ayres' wife, was listed at age 36. There were nine children ranging in age from 14 years to 11 months. The children's names never appear again in subsequent census lists.
In 1854, Hugh Aird of Scotland bought a farm on the CC Road. In 1860, a house was recorded on the land where Aird family members, Hugh, James, Elizabeth and John, resided. An 1877 history of Williamstown says James Aird was an elder in the Presbyterian Church.
Historians believe the spelling of Aird was possibly altered in the early census lists.
In 1981, at the urging of then Town Historian Margaret Wright, the Town Board adopted a resolution assuming care of all unattended cemeteries within Williamstown . The resolution was based on a section of state town law which allows municipalities to take control of cemetery plots that were active for at least 14 years and not held by a cemetery association.
Three years later, the town used its own funds to buy fencing and signs for three untended family cemeteries -- the Madison family plot on state Route 104, the Winsor family cemetery on county Route 3 and the Aird family plot on CC Road.
"It was a good project, a worthy project. We never had any complaints from people. In fact, we were praised," said former Town Supervisor Jim Van Winkle.
When people in Williamstown learned about what apparently happened at the Aird family cemetery, they demanded something be done. An advertisment in a local newspaper called all Williamstown taxpayers to a June 14 town board meeting.
Dick Gorski said it was the first time he could remember when so many people in this town of 1,000 turned out for a board meeting. About 25 residents showed up. Some had to stand outside the small meeting room.
Record Number: 8907160330
Copyright, 1989, The Herald Company
- Added: 8 Aug 2011
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