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The Headstone Tells All

The untimely grave of a Bakers Mills family

Halfway down the row of winter rye, the rototiller stalled and died. Jammed on a rock, I thought. But when I hauled it out to free the tines, I saw that they’d caught on a curved, triangular chunk of rusted metal—an old moldboard plow. Gardening on an old farm property like ours can be a kind of accidental archaeology. During the winter, frost pushes all sorts of discarded, lost and buried objects toward the surface. Over the years, the spring tilling has unearthed spoons, bones, spark plugs, shards of blue-and-white crockery, an intact medicine bottle from a North Creek apothecary and a jumble of wagon parts.

These finds always make me wonder about the Wes­cotts, the family who lived here and worked this land for a century, beginning in the 1850s. It’s no great feat of the imagination to extrapolate from the rusted plow to horses’ breath steaming in the chill air of an early planting season, but I’ve found it much more difficult to envision the people. I try to picture them tending to the animals, hanging the wash or playing with the children, but I lapse too easily into sentimental clichés from 19th-century genre paintings. My gut tells me that clichés wouldn’t do justice to the reality of these lives.

During my first summer here, Elmer Heath, the last farmer to work this place, paid an unannounced visit. We talked in that North Country kind of way, leaning against the fender of his truck, looking down at the toes of our shoes, watching as they nudged the gravel. He told me about the night in 1958 when the barns burned. I told him about the 1905 penny I’d found under the front doorsill while we were renovating. “It’d be the Wescotts that put that penny there when the new house went up,” he said. I asked him if he could tell me much about the Wescott family. He responded with a question: “Been to the graveyard? That headstone just about tells it all.”

The graveyard is only a five-minute walk from our door. The grave site itself is shaded by a canopy of ancient maples and is framed by a fieldstone wall that forms a square about 70 feet on each side. The single marker, a blunt obelisk at the center of the square, bears witness: Jarus J. Wescott, who was born in 1843, served as a young man in the Civil War in the 96th New York Infantry—the famous “Adirondack Regiment”—and died at age 79. His wife, Francis, was born in 1841 and died on April 29, 1881, nine days after giving birth to a girl, Maud. Baby Maud outlived her mother by only a month, dying on May 27. Her two sisters had both died on Christmas Day, 1880; Alice was 14, Edna was nine.

The “Jarus J.” of the headstone is known in all the local records as Jarius Cornelius Wescott. In those same records his wife’s name is spelled Frances. If some snowbound Faulkner were writing the tale sketched out on the stone, the name Jarius would best fit the character. For in the Bible, Jarius comes to Jesus, heartbroken: “My little daughter lies at the point of death, I pray come and lay your hands on her that she may be healed and she shall live.” In the gospel story the 12-year-old girl dies but is brought to life by a miracle. There was no miracle for the daughters of Jarius Wescott.

Doris Patton knows headstones; as Johnsburg town historian, they’re her raw material. As we sat in her kitchen she talked excitedly about a grave marker some hunters had recently found in the deep woods. The names and dates from the stone will add to the chronicle of early town life that Patton maintains in the form of meticulous charts of births, deaths and marriages. She spread the papers on the table. “I’d noticed an awful lot of deaths in 1880 and 1881 on the headstones around town,” Patton told me. “I knew something very bad must have happened, so I did some research. There was a lot of diphtheria in Johnsburg in those years—an epidemic that might have been brought here by itinerant peddlers. Those Wescott children must have died of diphtheria.”

Frances Wescott bore her last child soon after tending to her two young daughters in their fatal illness. She may have contracted diphtheria herself, although, given the timing of her death, it’s equally likely that Frances succumbed to “childbed fever,” a common complication of childbirth in the 19th century. At that time, giving birth at the age of 40 was a perilous experience for even a healthy woman.

My neighbor Eleanor Kellogg would often relate the local legend of how Jarius sat in the window for entire afternoons, looking out over the graves of his wife and children. In this telling, Jarius is like the gothic characters in Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial,” who are connected through the window to the bleak landscape of the cemetery and their own deep grief. Of course, we’ll never know how Jarius actually felt about the terrible events of 1880 and ’81. In any case, Patton’s careful records reveal that he got married again, in 1883, to a woman named Lillian Wilcox. He lived another 40 years, passing the farm on to his son, Harry.

When the legends and historical records have all been heard from, it is the wall of stones that Harry Wescott built to enclose the graves of his parents and sisters that makes the most eloquent statement. The wall flows with the contours of the land. By my reckoning, it may hold 40,000 stones or more. I wonder that a subsistence farmer took the time and effort to build such a wall. It’s a testament of devotion and endurance. It’s a monument to an Adirondack patriarch, made from the very stones he must have cursed as he guided his moldboard plow across the rocky fields.

Ironically, the old cemetery is a place that always seems full of life. I’ve never been there without seeing some creature or its signs. In winter there are deer and hare tracks, squirrels, jays and chickadees; in summer, goldfinches, chipmunks and dragonflies. Some of the maples have been blasted by lightning over the years, and woodpeckers, both the smaller downys and the big pileateds, often tap at them for larvae. Next to the grave marker, the flag, always fresh and crisp, flutters in its star-shaped bronze holder. I’ve read the inscription on the marker a hundred times. Every time I walk there I read it again. Alice, Edna, Frances, Maud. What beautiful names. How sad.

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