Harpswell Coastal Academy teacher Ashley Butterfield and student Jayden Fleetwood review their research in the Common Burying Ground behind the Harpswell Meetinghouse. (Doug Warren photo)
Most days, the cemeteries of Harpswell are places of quiet beauty and solitary reflection where “the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep,” to lift a line from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” penned by Thomas Gray in England back in 1750.
But on this Friday in early December, the scene at the Common Burying Ground behind the Harpswell Meetinghouse is anything but elegiac. Students from Harpswell Coastal Academy are busily, and somewhat noisily, wrapping up a six-week elective class in collaboration with the Harpswell Historical Society. The project is focused on surveying and mapping the graveyard, which dates back to the era when Thomas Gray was writing his poem.
Under the watchful eye of science and math teacher Ashley Butterfield and Dave Hackett, president of the Historical Society, the students are scattered across the cemetery, collecting data and examining headstones. Some are using a replica of an 18th-century transit, equipped with Hackett’s grandfather’s compass, to survey the grounds. They are measuring the stone walls in rods (roughly 16.5 feet) with a length of chain, a practice that would have been familiar to a noted 18th-century surveyor: George Washington.
“They are learning so much through this exercise, using math and measurements and working as a team in a real-life setting,” said Butterfield. “And they have big plans, including using their tech skills on a searchable website, connected to the Historical Society’s homepage.”
The students also plan to post interviews with Hackett, who has ancestors buried in the cemetery, on the website (harpswellhistorical.org), along with profiles of some of the other people at eternal rest there.
“The meetinghouse is 18 years older than the United States,” Hackett explained. “And the cemetery is older than that. For many years, this was the only cemetery in Harpswell. In the early days, folks from the islands brought their kin here by boat for burial.” He pointed out that Clement Orr, a prominent member of the island’s namesake family, was interred here in 1813.
Also buried in the cemetery is Elisha Eaton, first minister of Harpswell’s Congregational church. He held services in the meetinghouse, the oldest surviving meetinghouse in the state and a National Historic Landmark. Elisha and his wife, Katherine, had 11 children before Elisha died in 1764 and their son, Samuel, took over the ministry until his death in 1822. He and his mother are also buried here.
Academy student Jayden Fleetwood was walking among the headstones, clipboard in hand, gathering information on some of the cemetery’s permanent residents. He admitted it was a little unsettling thinking about the bodies buried under his feet, but he expressed excitement about the mapping project.
“It’s pretty cool coming here,” Fleetwood said. “I’m excited about the website we’re going to build and using my math skills.” Pausing a moment to reflect, he added: “There are a bunch of memories here. It’s amazing to think that some of the people here were part of the American Revolution and were alive before our country even existed.”
Back across the street at the Harpswell Historical Society Museum, volunteer Dave Sparks is overseeing another elective class for Coastal Academy students. This group is building three-legged stools, largely using woodworking tools from Colonial times. Sparks demonstrates a “shaving horse,” used to strip bark and trim wooden poles to be used as stool legs.
“This is straight out of ancient times,” he said. “And the kids seem to enjoy using it.”
Hackett said a new set of elective classes for students would be starting up soon at the Historical Society, but with the Coastal Academy scheduled to close at the end of school year, the future of the programs is uncertain.
“There’s a need for this sort of thing,” Hackett said. “Adult education? I’m not sure. But I do know that when folks come to the museum, they’ll see things they won’t see anywhere else.”
The Harpswell Historical Society Museum is currently open by appointment only. Call 207-833-6322 for information. It will reopen to the general public on Memorial Day.
Doug Warren, of Orr’s Island, retired from a career as an editor at the Portland Press Herald, Miami Herald and Boston Globe. He serves as vice president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors.