‘Burying ground’ of ancient stones marks lifespan of old settlement
DEBERT MOUNTAIN – You notice the blueberries before the headstones.
Here on this landing, on a small rise beside a trail leading into the woods, the wild blueberries cover the entire area of this tiny and nearly forgotten pioneer cemetery.
Barely discernable among the weeds, grasses and low blueberry bushes, the aged and leaning headstones harken back to an earlier time when manual labour was the norm and, life, although hard, moved at a more relaxed pace.
“It’s not what I call a cemetery, it’s a burying ground,” area resident Stacey Culgin says, in describing the un-manicured site to a visitor.
“It’s a pretty spot, right on the river banks,” she says, glancing around. “It’s hard to believe there’s not a farm left.”
Her reference is to the fact that, at one time, there were a number of farms in this area in what came to be known as Cottam Settlement.
The community was named after James Cottam, the area’s first settler who was born in 1750 in Lancashire, England. He moved to the Lower Onslow area around 1775 after being honourably discharged in Halifax from the British Army.
In 1788, he married Mary Wilson, daughter of Thomas and Mary (McDorman) Wilson of Masstown and the pair settled for a time in Lower Onslow.
When Cottam was discharged from the army, he had been given a land grant by the government up on Debert Mountain. So, around 1809, he moved his wife and their growing family of six sons and six daughters the 10-15 kilometres to the site near where the Cottam Settlement Cemetery stands.
In time, Cottam’s first log house was replaced by a larger frame house and out of the untamed forest grew a sawmill, a gristmill and blacksmith shop. As his children grew up, they established their own farms, until at some point, the aging settlers died and the settlement disappeared.
The headstone for James Cottam indicates he died on Nov. 3, 1842, at age 93. Mary Wilson “wife of the above,” as the fading inscription reads, died on Nov. 25, 1860 at age 88
“They were hardy old souls, weren’t they?” Culgin says, as she continues to dig through the grass to retrieve fallen headstones and prop them up to allow the rain waters to run off.
“Who are you?” she asks curiously but rhetorically, peering down at the crumbling and lichen-covered headstone barely visible among the overgrowth.
If there was ever an inscription written on this old stone, it has long been erased by nature.
Located on a hill beside a trail that runs across the top of Debert Mountain, the cemetery is almost invisible to those unfamiliar with it. If you didn’t know it existed, you could pass right on by without ever being the wiser.
The perimeter, or what appears to be, is ringed by a rusty chain that runs through holes drilled into the tops of fence posts. Every so often, the shrill sound of bird song fills the air as buzzing flies make their presence known in irritating fashion. Beyond that, however, it is peaceful here on this warm summer’s day.
“It looks like this is the perimeter of the cemetery but it’s actually not. If you come through here …,” Culgin says, leading a visitor across the fence.
“On the left-hand side, there is one lone stone, that’s out beyond the cemetery, which we’ve always known about as kids,” she says. “It’s very crude. It’s not like a manufactured stone.”
The very rustic headstone sits among young trees and rotting tree stumps alike, which give indication of the logging activity that took place here after the settlement had died and the forest regrew.
Like many of the other headstones inside the cemetery fence, Culgin believes this one was actually a fieldstone, likely removed as the Cottam’s cleared their land so many decades before.
“I was given to understand that there are probably (other) graves here – because they wouldn’t have just stuck him out there by himself,” she says of the sole headstone on this side of the fence.
The only inscription on the crude stone are the initials “IK”. And, while they stand for Issac Kennedy, who is believed to have been killed by a falling tree in 1834, Culgin says the initials had a far more sinister meaning when she was a child.
“When we were kids, this was kind of outside the cemetery right? We were told that it stood for ‘I kill’. And that somebody had killed somebody or had killed some kids.”
Culgin chuckles at the thought now. But her mood grows slightly more somber as she surveys the forest that is ever so slowly reclaiming this hallowed ground.
“This is going to be lost,” she says, with a slight sigh and shake of her head.
Headstones not as tough as one might think
Rough cleaning doing more damage than time to headstones
DEBERT MOUNTAIN – Stacey Culgin carefully lifts a century-plus old headstone off the ground and props one end with a wooden block.
She then uses a cotton glove to delicately wipe away the grass and dirt clinging to the stone.
“People think you can’t do damage to a stone by cleaning,” Culgin says, as she gingerly tends to the old stone here at the Cottam Settlement Cemetery, which was created in 1818.
“But that’s not true, especially the older stones.”
Culgin is a bit of a history buff who works as a volunteer at the Colchester Historeum and who also believes in the preservation of old grave sites.
The reason for propping up one end of the stones, she says, is to allow rainwater to run off, instead of pooling.
As far as cleaning them, Culgin gets dismayed at people who use bleach and heavy-bristled brushes to remove dirt and lichen because of the damage that ultimately occurs.
“The lichen does no harm to the stone,” she says. But many people don’t like to see it on a loved one’s headstone, so they try to remove it.
“You don’t actually kill the spores,” when scrubbing a stone, she said. Conversely, the lichen spores are actually spread over more area and ground into the headstone.
The chemicals from the bleach, meanwhile, continue to eat away at the stone causing it to deteriorate more quickly over time.
Anyone who is inclined to clean a headstone, she said, should only use a soft, plastic scrubby (such as is used in doing dishes) and straight water.
“If they want to clean it, that’s all they should put on that headstone.”
In the past few years, the old cemetery has received some care from Robert and Debbie Taylor with more landscaping maintenance in the works through Shane Taylor.
The memorial stone, marking the grounds, was created and put in place with the help of grant money from the late Don Beaton of Belmont.