Deborah Probert next to her favorite slate headstone from 1799 which has exposed nails and visible script mistakes in Velina Cony’s name. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — “I call it my COVID summer project,” Deborah Probert said as she crouched down next to her favorite slate headstone in the Center Burying Ground Cemetery in downtown Farmington.

Throughout the summer, Probert has been unearthing footstones which are smaller grave markers adjacent to a headstone indicating where a deceased person’s feet rest. Probert has worked as a volunteer alongside Albert Stehle who is a stone mason and preservationist commissioned throughout the state to clean gravestones.

Footstones were a common accompaniment to headstones up until the 1870s and often include a person’s initials or full name. When a headstone suffers from considerable wear, a footstone can provide valuable clues to the buried person’s identity.

Probert explained that many of the footstones in the Center Burying Ground were covered up by maintenance workers decades ago who were tired of mowing around the grave markers. Some of the footstones she’s unearthed this summer were buried by 6 inches of dirt and were located using dowsing rods.

“In my opinion, it’s desecration,” Probert said about covering up the footstones.

Before Probert began her work in the cemetery, there was already an interest in documenting the late inhabitants of the Center Burying Ground. Members of the Farmington Historical Society (FHS) have long been researching those buried in the cemetery and hosted a presentation about New England headstones.

Farmington resident Bill Jennings attended the FHS presentation, which piqued his interest in documenting cemeteries. In 2011, Jennings walked from his home in town to the Center Burying Ground with a video camera in hand and began recording the plots and designing an online map that outlines the graves in the cemetery.

“I had some time on my hands and I had always been interested in history, and there was the Center Meeting House Cemetery [Center Burying Ground] and the more I researched it, the more I realized wow, there is a lot of early history here!” Jennings said in a phone interview. “Some of the town founders for example, are buried at the cemetery such as Supply Belcher.”

As Probert unearthed footstones, she was able to provide Jennings with names and dates that appeared as question marks on his map due to the rough condition of the headstones.

The headstone of Augustus Stewart before Albert Stehle cleaned the stone with D/2, a biodegradable solution often used for cleaning stains on gravestones caused by mold and lichen. Photo Courtesy of Deborah Probert

“I was working on this and the Farmington Historical Society was doing their research which I benefited from, and then all of a sudden here is Deobrah Probert,” Jennings said. “Her work to actually restore the headstones and such at the Center Cemetery also contributed information and helped correct the stuff I had posted online. So we were kind of working without knowing each other and then all of it came together.”

Stehle’s preservation work in the Center Burying Ground and his previous work in the Butterfield Cemetery next to Hannaford on Fyfe Road, was paid for through trust funds established by families whose relatives are buried in the cemeteries. Town Manager Richard Davis hopes to see continued restoration efforts take place at what he estimates to be around 20 cemeteries throughout Farmington.

“That was kind of rare that we were able to identify that source of funding. We don’t have a lot of other money available for these types of repairs,” Davis said in a phone interview. “However, the Chairman had suggested we put some money into the budget next year for 2021 and it would be maybe $5,000 or something like that. So I see this as an ongoing program of restoration.”

All other research, restoration and documentation conducted by FHS, Jennings and Probert have been done without any source of funding. Both Probert and Jennings expressed their work as coming from a place of passion and discovery.

“The draw I had was to do something that apparently had not been done before; to do a thorough and complete survey of the cemetery itself,” Jennings said. “People knew about it, there was some documentation about it, but nobody had really done a detailed survey of it and I thought, hot damn, here’s something I can do!” 

The headstone of Augustus Stewart after Albert Stehle cleaned the stone. Deborah Probert planted flowers in the small rod iron bed that sits on top of the young boy’s grave. Photo Courtesy of Deborah Probert

Probert said she has fond memories of growing up in the Buckfield and Canton area and visiting graves with her family to adorn them with flowers. She described an affinity she has towards preserving gravestones and learning about the history of past generations. In the Center Burying Ground, Probert knelt before the headstone of Judith Smith who passed away on June 12, 1807,  and read aloud her epitaph which Probert considers to be the most poetic in the cemetery.

“I’m seeing how the people link together in the cemetery,” she said.

As FHS and Probert gather information on those buried in Farmington cemeteries, they upload their research to the websites Find a Grave and the Maine Memory Network. Jennings’ map continues to be updated on his google site, The Center Village Recorder.

 

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