In An Old Cemetery, Sharon Middle Schoolers Hunt For Clues To Local History

Oct 7, 2014

An abandoned cemetery is turning into a classroom for middle-schoolers at the Sharon Academy in the Upper Valley. They’re mapping the grave sites, researching the people buried there, and creating a website for genealogists who might not be able to visit the plots in person.

The project is spurring the students’ interest in local history.

"It's very interesting to look at how well preserved the gravestones are. The people who made them really cared a lot about them." - Wright Frost, eighth grader, The Sharon Academy

On a crisp sunny fall day, about 30 young investigators arrive in a caravan of cars at an old, hard-to-find cemetery in a stand of trees just off Route 132. In fact, it's so out of the way that the lead chaperone misses the turn the first time. 

As the students scramble into the thick woods with blankets and lunches, some gather at one prominent  headstone. That's where their social studies teacher, Andrew Lane, passes out clipboards holding spreadsheet forms. He explains how to stretch pink tape to mark lines of graves for what will become a digital map, and then collect information from each headstone. Some are hard to see, and even harder to decipher.

Andrew Lane, social studies teacher at The Sharon Academy, demonstrates how to collect data from gravestone.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

“Okay, everyone should be following along where you fill it in, okay?” he calls as an eager group straggles up a hill.  

“So column four, row one, okay? Death date, August 8, 1854…age at death, what did it say…85 years, one month...  Can you do the math, so then you’d have to do backwards math,” he tells them.

This cemetery project taps into math as well as history, and it even crosses into two other academic subjects.

Marcy Innes teaches English and art at the middle school.

She wants the kids to pay close attention, maybe make some rubbings of the inscriptions and carved pictures on these ancient stones including weeping willows and angels.

“Because that’s something we can do in art; we can learn about some of the funerary images, because that was the earliest form of American art,"  Innes explains.

This is an early cemetery, with graves dating from about 1782 to around 1903. One goal of this project is to figure out when this part of Sharon, known as the Day District, was in its heyday—that is, when the largest number of people were buried here.

Middle schoolers from The Sharon Academy enter an old cemetery for social studies research project.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

Taylor Lyman and Jasmin Johnson are cousins in the eighth grade. Taylor figures some of her most distant forbears are right under her feet.

“Definitely, I mean if we’re ninth-generation Vermonters and like, this place is around that time, and we live in Sharon… this most likely has a lot of ancestors here,” she says, setting off with her clipboard to a cluster of granite monuments.

Some of the young historians are surprised at how long people lived in the 18th century—sometimes into their 80s and 90s, if they were not women who died in childbirth.

An early gravestone marks death of Joanna Day in Sharon.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

Eight-grader Wright Frost is learning from the graves about how Vermont was settled by foreign-born colonists. Some fought in the Revolutionary War.

“Also it’s very interesting to look at how well preserved the gravestones are,” he says.

“The people who made them really cared a lot about them. It was important to them that their family member got a good burial.”

And now these precious family histories will not be lost in the undergrowth of a long forgotten burial ground.  When the kids build a website, the local historical society will have a new way to tell the story of post-colonial life and death in this rural community.