2013-08-30 / Community

A Window on the Past

Community pulls together for cemetery restorations
By Craig Skelton
South Portland Historical Society

I am often asked if I’m related to the person whose name appears on the street sign in Highland Memorial Cemetery. I find it quite an honor to drive down Ken Skelton Lane to visit the grave site of my parents, grandparents and other relatives buried there. Visits to the cemetery were not always that pleasant. As a small boy, I remember loading up the lawn mower and a set of steel clippers and making the trek to the cemetery to mow the gravesite ourselves. Somewhere in the history of the cemetery, the perpetual care money had been stolen and the records were never recovered. My dad could not bear the thought of his parents’ graves left uncared for and so we made frequent visits there to do it.

In 2004, the Highland Memorial Cemetery board bestowed the honor of a street name on my dad because his efforts didn’t stop at simply caring for his parents’ graves. The recognition was for countless hours and many, many years of volunteer efforts to restore Highland Cemetery and its burial records. Dad was not alone in those efforts, and when I couldn’t reach him I knew he was either at Charles Chase Co., which donated office space for cemetery records, or at the cemetery itself. He spent hours upon hours with May Rowe, who was another tireless volunteer, working on re-creating the burial records that had been long lost.

Dad and a legion of volunteers, led by Art Smith of the South Portland Lions Club, were also at the cemetery working to bring it back. One major effort was being there on Memorial Day, year after year, talking with visitors, paying their respects, in an effort to get answers to questions that helped in re-creation of burial records.

I became involved in the process of computerizing the records that dad and May Rowe meticulously transcribed. Through guidance and funding provided by the Lions Club, the cemetery and its records were revived and that effort set an example for other cemetery projects throughout the community.

Brown’s Hill Cemetery records had also been lost and, in 1999, Sharon Ward, with the help of her daughter, cataloged the names and dates on all the stones and she drafted a map of that information for reference. I later discovered a more detailed map done by the Work Progress Administration of Brown’s Hill Cemetery and this past spring cross-referenced the information Sharon Ward had created with the lot numbers and sections shown on the Work Progress Administration map.

During my many years of service at the city of South Portland, I was aware people from around the country had been calling city hall in search of area cemetery burial records in their efforts to find a relative or for conducting genealogical research. John Switzer, a city parks department supervisor, approached thencity manager Jeff Jordan about posting Highland Cemetery information on the city website. About that time, I was asked by Sally Hinckley to assist with computerization of the records for Bay View Cemetery and further efforts by Kathy DiPhilippo, director of South Portland Historical Society, contributed records for several other cemeteries within South Portland. All these efforts have made the records for seven South Portland cemeteries available online at http://www.southportland.org/.

There is always something we can do to help maintain cemeteries here in South Portland and if you are willing to join those efforts that may include raking, brush removal or mowing, please contact the South Portland Historical Society at 767-7299 or sphistoricalsociety@maine.rr.com.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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