In a field not far from sight, but seldom seen, lies an abandoned cemetery long forgotten by most.
WILMOT - Some longtime locals know it as the old Wiswall Cemetery but for many people passing by the burial ground lining the well-travelled Highway 1, they might not even know it’s there. Nestled between a farmer’s field and a used car lot, the ancient cemetery, with some headstones predating Canadian Confederation in 1867, seems lost to movement of time.
Wilmot resident Terry Wilkins, however, remembers the Wiswall Cemetery well.
“In 1967, a group of young people in the community decided to take that on as a centennial project,” he said, noting that some of the stones had been knocked down by cars that missed the stop sign at the end of Vault Road.
“We planted the trees around it and cleaned it up.”
There’s no road leading into the cemetery now, just a steep bank that keeps it largely hidden from view.
Wilkins said the last burial there took place in 1967, shortly after Pheobe B. Loomer passed away.
“She was my babysitter as I grew up,” he said, noting that the cemetery had not been used for quite some time before that.
Loomer was widowed at 64 years old when her husband, blacksmith Theodore H. Loomer, died in 1938. She lived into her early 90s, and Wilkins remembers his family checking in on her from time to time.
“She was from the community. She lived without electricity and hot water… she was a nice, old lady,” he said.
“We used to take strawberries to her.”
Annapolis County Cemetery Records found in the library of the Annapolis Valley Macdonald Museum in Middleton account for 41 stones and 71 inscriptions at Wiswall Cemetery. The inscriptions on record recognize individuals laid to rest as far back as 1832. They ranged in age from infants and adolescents to the 23 who lived to be 65 or older.
The dates of death in the records show 48 belong to people who died between 1830 and 1879. Eighteen others were listed as dying between 1880s and 1920s. Then, the records show a lull in activity at the cemetery until the Loomers were laid to rest.
Wilkins occasionally receives queries about the cemetery from individuals working on genealogy projects, or distant relatives of the deceased. He recalls efforts being made to tidy up the overgrown field and tend to the weather-worn stones about five years ago but, for the most part, this ode to long-gone locals goes unmaintained.
The cemetery land is located on a deeded plot, but Wilkins says he is unaware of any church with past or present affiliations with the site.
“This one has no claim. That land was donated by the Wiswalls when the cemetery was formed.”
The surnames Wiswall, Stronach and Fales can be linked to prominent settlers from Wilmot’s early days, and all three are found on memorial stones in the abandoned burial ground.
Reverend John Wiswall, a Loyalist from Massachusetts, moved to the area in the 1780s and built the Old Holy Trinity Church a short time later. The church still stands on Middleton’s Main Street.
Some stones have withstood more than a century’s worth of sleet and heat, but remain legible. Other memorials offer mere hints of inscriptions now concealed, with the surfaces blurred by the test of time. Every stone, be it an elaborately decorated monument or tiny tablet baring a single set of initials, evokes the same nagging question: who were these people?
Saturday social: A picnic, some fellowship and a cemetery
By Wendy Elliott
Annapolis Valley Register
KENTVILLE, N.S. – It begins like this:
‘Hello friends. I am planning a day of mowing and trimming at the Woodlawn cemetery on Saturday. We are also hoping to replace the gate post and rehang the gate.’
It ends with a picnic and some time spent socializing, and the work of the Burial Ground Care Society of Kings County is done.
At least, at the Clem cemetery in Donnellans Brook – and for this time period.
While the purpose of the society is more detailed, the work they do can be summed up in a simple sentence: They make neglected cemeteries look good.
The society, which formed in 2001, researches, locates and reclaims abandoned graveyards and gives them the care and recognition that they deserve.
“We hope that if we clean them up, the community will take over,” says member JoAnne Bezanson.
Some of these burial sites were found in cattle pastures and woodlands. Currently, the volunteer crew is responsible for 15 cemeteries.
This past spring, society members had a work party at a private cemetery where they put new crosses on the graves of four sisters, ages two to 11, who died of diphtheria in 1873.
As a parent and grandparent, Bezanson found that effort meaningful.
She, like some other members, became interested while doing research into her ancestry and looking for the final resting places of family members. Others, like John Nichols, caretaker of the Gaspereau Cemetery, got caught up in the community side of it.
“I liked the idea,” says the retired RCMP officer. “Some of these cemeteries are so old and abandoned. There’s nobody left. That kind of volunteering feels good.”
Nichols has been eyeing two family cemeteries in his community for some rehabilitation. He hopes the Gertridge plots will be next, but the Coldwell cemetery also needs work due to a big tree that has fallen over.
The society hosts two annual fundraisers to pay for things like signs and other costs beyond the grunt work volunteers contribute. Two antique shows are held each year at the Millett Centre in New Minas, with half the profits going to the society.
Members also meet monthly, except July and August, at the Old Kings Courthouse Museum, where they also keep the society’s records.
Notes on Wilmot’s past
While there is no clear indication of how or why the Wiswall Cemetery came to be, there are some notable Wiswall connections from Wilmot’s past.
Rev. John Wiswall’s story is still told in Middleton, where the Old Holy Trinity Church he had built between 1787 to 1791 still stands on Main Street.
Wiswall, a Loyalist from Massachusetts who came to Nova Scotia in the mid-1780s, was the first rector appointed in the Parish of Wilmot. The Parish of Wilmot’s website says Wiswall died at the age of 81 in 1812, and was buried beside the historic church he lovingly helped raise from the ground up.
Several historical documents note that one of Wiswall’s sons, Peleg Wiswall, was an elected member of the House of Assembly who later became a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge.
Wilmot Township Book by Ruth and Ross Burgess said Wiswall, the clergyman, was granted 500 acres of land, and built a house on the banks of the Annapolis River in an area located on the southwest corner of Wiswall Brook.
Notes on Old Wilmot Township by Leone Cousins cites Stronach and Fales as two well-known names in the area that can be linked to early settlers. According to Cousins’ book, two Loyalists with the surnames Fales and Stronach came to Nova Scotia with prominent Loyalist Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, and agreed to toil away at clearing his expansive property within the Township of Wilmot for three years in exchange for promised grants of 100 acres of land apiece.
“Both families have had doctors, clergy and well-known citizens among their descendants in Wilmot Township,” wrote Cousins, citing Fales River and Stronach Mountain Road as lasting namesakes honouring these families.
The Burgess book identifies the Loyalists employed by Ruggles in the 1780s as George Stronach and Benjamin Fales.
There are dates and names etched in stones at Wiswall Cemetery for Charlie Wiswall (five-year-old son of James P. and Mitle S. Wiswall, died Aug. 4, 1848), Edward Fales (d. September 1910 at 69 years), Elizabeth Fales (d. November 1859 at 73), Isaac Fales (d. April 1844 at 27), Ebenezer Stronach (d. November 1858 at 66), Elizabeth Stronach (d. May 1868 at 68) and Sarah Stronach (d. Jan. 1865 at 70 years old).
Did you know?
The vast majority of Wilmot residents accounted for in provincial census data for the area in 1838 were identified as farmers. Other occupations listed included: shoemaker, blacksmith, caulker, miller, carpenter, gardener, surveyor, labourer.