The crisp October air seems to usher in the Halloween season along with its ghosts and spirits. And it’s the perfect time to share the rich history of the cemeteries in Gill - particularly North Cemetery which is the oldest and in use before the Revolutionary War.
Currently the Town of Gill oversees five cemeteries: North Cemetery (located at 441 Main Road), West Gill Cemetery (located at 13 Hoe Shop Road), Center Cemetery (located at 334 Main Road-next door to the Slate Library), Riverside Cemetery (located at 40 Main Road-near Kuzmeskus Bus Co.) and Riverside Woods Natural Burial Ground (located at 40 Main Road).
Located on Main Road, about a mile north of the center of town, North Cemetery is the oldest burial ground in Gill at almost 250 years old and was in use before the Revolutionary War. While there is no record that confirms the exact date it was first used, the earliest grave marker is dated 1777 for a small child, Timothy Stoughton. At the time about 50 families lived in what is now Gill but in 1777 it was still considered Greenfield’s “Northeast”. The Town of Gill incorporated in 1793.
On October 17, 1777, two-year old Timothy Stoughton passed away. He was the son of Samuel and Sarah Stoughton. The young boy died on the same day his father, Lieutenant Samuel Stoughton, witnessed the surrender of British General John Burgoyne with 6,000 of his men to the Patriots in Saratoga, NY.
Stoughton Family lore indicates that Samuel’s company quickly disbanded after Burgoyne’s surrender and he immediately started the long trek home on foot to see his beloved family-not knowing about his son’s death. He arrived two days later. As he rounded the western hill near his farm (behind where the North Cemetery is now located), he looked eagerly to catch a first glimpse of the home that he hadn’t seen in two months. Instead he was startled to see a funeral procession leaving his front doorway. It was only then that he learned his youngest child died while he was away and arrived home in time to attend his last rites.
Sadly, two other Stoughton children died young as well. They were Nancy (age 4) who died in 1785 and Ira (age 1) died in 1788. Other early markers in the North Cemetery include Daniel Slate (age 81) 1789, Ruth Foot (age 88) 1792, Samuel C. Wright (4 weeks) 1793, Obed Foot (age 56) 1797, Mary Slate (Daniel ‘s widow age 83) 1795, Ruth Hosley (age 40) 1796, Ferona Goodale (age 3) 1798 and Patty Slate (wife of Ebenezer Slate, age 50) 1799.
North Cemetery 3
History of Older Cemeteries
The North Cemetery officially became town property in 1804. The town voted to purchase just under 1.25 acres from Ebenezer Slate who then owned the land for $20 per acre. Additional land purchases for this cemetery were purchased in 1909 from Arthur A. Chapin owner of the former Slate farm (Bk. 535, p. 266) and Peleg W. Eddy in 1915 (Bk. 615, p. 58). The cemetery now sits on 1.8 acres.
According to Brenda Sullivan of Gravestone Girls,“studying a town’s burial grounds helps tell the story of the past.” They are rich in history and can help unfold some of the lost narrative from years gone by. Stones made before the 1800’s were locally sourced and can also be instrumental in telling about the local geological history of the area.
Often times, to find a graveyard, especially in New England, you only need to locate old church steeples. Generally the residents would create cemeteries in the center of town and/ or near a church. Not carefully planned, they grew “organically” with the oldest markers in the center and expanded as needed to the outer perimeters over the years.
The Maple Tree
As you approach the North Cemetery you can’t help but notice a spectacular giant maple tree near the entrance. Recently I had the pleasure of reading a heartfelt essay by a former Gill resident Sophie Margola with deep roots to our town. Her writing talks about her dad driving her to school in the mornings and her memories of this daily ritual in this small town that she grew to love…
“...I’ve lived in the same town, in the same home my whole life. Growing up, the drive to my quaint elementary school took no longer than ten minutes, but I always refused to take the bus—riding with dad was one of my favorite things, so he would take me, backpack in hand, nearly every day. Sitting in the back seat of his silver Toyota Avalon, I would lean against the window, cheek pressed on the glass. It took us four left turns and two right turns to get to school. The houses in Gill are few- and far-between, so I would just gaze out at the landscape. We would drive down the only main road in town, passing dew kissed fields and thick tree lines. I would always wonder what lived deep in those forests. In the earliest morning drives I would see groups of deer flocking together, nose down in the wide-open fields. They called these thick woods home—this untouched, unexplored world…..
She goes on to write, “I took a general geology course in the spring of my senior year of high school which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. In the beginning of May that same year, we took a class field trip to one of the cemeteries located in Gill. In a town spanning only fourteen square miles, with a population no greater than 1,500, it’s surprising that we would have more than one. To no avail, there are a whopping four cemeteries that are scattered up and down the Main Road in Gill. I knew this particular cemetery, named “North Cemetery,” as the home to the goats. It’s positioned on a hill at the base of a hayfield which makes it nearly impossible to mow. In typical Gill fashion, they would close the gates of the chain linked fence and let a few goats roam free. The four-legged lawnmowers took care of business efficiently and effectively. When I visited with my class, I sadly wasn’t greeted by the goats—it must have been their day off.
We walked up and down the half-dozen rows of headstones, examining the kinds of rock that was used to create them. We looked at the different kinds of decay and made notes of the engraved dates to bring back for further research. In strolling through the cemetery, I couldn’t help but notice the breathtaking tree that was gatekeeping the entrance. It stood at least sixty feet in the air, with a canopy just as large. It looks as though six have trees have merged into one, but the sheer size of its roots just gave that illusion. There are five major branches that protrude out of this tree, all with individual circumferences of about three feet. This is the mammoth of trees—all six feet of me paled in comparison. I knew this tree had stories to tell. It had seen plenty of heartbreak in its time—it’s heard the cries and sobs of those who laid their loved ones to rest. This tree, standing on its own, supported those in their darkest moments.