Dear Readers, I wrote this piece while doing site research in central New York State in May of 2009 and with some judicious editing, I think it is definitely worth a blog post. My apologies to my family and fellow researchers who plowed through last year’s field version. I have an inexplicable propensity to use three dots…
Monday was an absolutely gorgeous day. It was warm and sunny and promised to provide ideal weather for field research in the Finger Lakes. After the previous day’s six hour drive to Skaneateles from Pennsylvania and a good night’s sleep, I treated myself to a leisurely breakfast on the large front porch of my lodgings, the Sherwood Inn. The two hundred year old inn overlooks the deep blue waters of Skaneateles Lake and has always been a favorite of mine. Fortified by a the inn’s excellent coffee and fresh pastries, I was off to pick up my oldest brother, Gale, for field research and family reminiscences.
Our first stop in Enfield Center had a dual purpose. First, find the burial sites of our ancestors and then check out Van Dorn Corners for a possible group photo location for our upcoming Purdy Family Gathering.
Enfield was and still is a farming community. Rural and stubbornly resistant to change. One local explained to me, “We like it that way. City people want to come in here and change it, but it isn’t going to happen. It’s fine just the way it is.”
That resident, Steve, is an import really. Just second generation. Early in the day, we had found Steve and his co-worker, Jack, whose pedigree was several generations’ worth of Enfield history. Gale and I had someone to talk Purdy and Ingersoll history with! But I am ahead of myself.
Despite my field research preparations which included a Google map with latitude and longitude and a GPS device talking at us all along the way, we found actually driving the rural roads and navigating them in search of the little pioneer cemeteries was still a bit of a challenge. NOTE TO SELF – stop and ask directions! It still works and you get to talk with people and is part of the process for me. So there on the main road which is no more than a two lane country road that rises and falls and curves with the terrain, we found the Enfield Township garage. And Steve standing out by his big truck preparing to head out to clean up after a recent windstorm.
Steve took a couple of minutes to warm up to two strangers. After all, we could be “comin’ into town lookin’ to change it”. Within a moment or two of explaining our presence there, Steve was a one-man welcoming committee. He would introduce us to his co-worker, Jack…an old timer (my age for God’s sake) and a fellow who knew just about everything that ever happened in Enfield. The problem was Jack was just pulling out of the garage in his big truck to go down the road a bit to look at some cleanup work and so for the moment we just had Steve. And Steve was ready for some good old fashioned conversation. Heck, it was a nice day and we were interesting enough and things move…well… how they move in Enfield and it didn’t look like we were going to change that. “Stick around a few minutes and Jack will be back and he can tell you anything you want to know.” In the meantime Steve filled us in on Steve…his folks being from Scotland though he had never been.
In less than twenty minutes and a few Steve stories later, Jack at last arrived back at the garage and we shook hands. Dirt and all. Honest Enfield dirt. Jack warmed up to the talk of the Purdys right away and began his small town, rambling style of tale telling. The Purdy topic spun into a description of the old Purdy “market” down the road and then there was Mabel Purdy, the town historian, who was an Enfield encyclopedia…and dead. So no interviewing Mabel, I guess. But the good news is Mabel’s daughter is alive. The bad news is she is poorly and probably off to the nursing home by now. But wait. HER daughters are around. Sometimes. Steve had obviously embraced the Enfield story telling technique from his friend, Jack.
After patiently listening to Jack’s “Enfield past and present meanderings” while he comfortably leaned on his big tractor in the late spring sun, I knew we were burning daylight and tactfully brought us back to the business of getting directions to the two small pioneer cemeteries in the area. Jack was delighted that he could at least provide us with something useful and informed us that we were just three houses down the road from the Presbyterian Cemetery and a quick “turn around” would take us to the Christian Cemetery around the curve past the old Baptist Church. “Oh, and watch the curve,” he warned. Grateful for the directions and charmed by our immersion in Enfield character, I thanked Steve and Jack and we were finally off to find the cemeteries of our ancestors.
Just moments later we found ourselves at the Presbyterian Cemetery. Ready and anxious to archive my research, I had my list of burials with me and my video and still digital cameras.
True to the old pioneer cemeteries there is NO driveway or parking. So spotting a “friendly” driveway across the curved road, I pulled in and silently thanked the neighbors of Enfield for their hospitality. Gale figured it was okay, too. They had a Marine Corps flag flying below the American flag. SEMPER FI!
A quick look…left and right…and a dash across the road had us at the entrance to the old cemetery. I stood there for a moment impacted by the fact that this cemetery held the history of this area…and our young country. Graves dated back to the early 1800’s and earlier. Some of the tombstones were at least five feet tall. Many were tilted precariously to the side and some had broken and now resembled stepping stones. Some were lichen covered. Some were barely legible and were clustered tightly together while some stood alone. A curious landscape within the deep green shade. Violets grew among the gravestones and their merry color gave it a little garden appearance.
I was prepared to find my ancestral grandparents, Samuel D. Purdy and his wife, Samantha Ingersoll Purdy and her mother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll. What I found was great great grandfather, Elbert Purdy and his two small daughters, Henrietta and Emilie. There at the back of the cemetery stood the five foot granite obelisk. Not the humble tombstones of a Methodist that I had expected, but the serious mark of a man and his family. To impress. To remember. I had hoped that his father and mother and grandmother would be close by, but after half an hour of tombstone-to-tombstone searching, I had come to the back of the cemetery that had a precipitous drop filled with thigh-high brambles and a cluster of more obelisks and tombstones ensnared in the collapsed terrain and wild growth below.
Dangerous? You bet! And tantalizing? Oh, yes. But, let’s see. I am a sensible adventurer. I am 61 years old and plan to live a long time and, oh. I hate snakes and that looked like snake habitat to me. Having left Gale behind to commune with the Williams and have his cigarette…oh, dear the Methodists wouldn’t approve…I traipsed back to pick up my wayward brother and head to my illegally parked car.
The car was just fine and with a salute to the flagpole and a hearty “Semper Fi”, we drove the mile or so down the road to the Christian Cemetery. This very different cemetery was open terrain and smack dab in a cow pasture. It was a simpler affair with straight rows and a tree or two, but uphill a bit toward the pasture and its cow neighbors. It was a fine weather day and Gale was enjoying the electric controls of his window so I had abandoned my “big city” proclivity to lock the car up tight. I figured the cows didn’t want anything I had in the car anyway.
So the window stayed down.
I was energized to at last find the Van Dorns and pay my respects. I grabbed the cameras. AND my car keys. You never knew about cows. We headed to the left to start scanning the rows for our ancestors. Left to right. Front to back. Name after familiar name. I knew these folks from my research and said my hellos as we went. Cows don’t care if you are crazy.
And as my luck would have it, our ancestors are buried at the far back right section. I did note something I thought curious. You see the inscriptions were facing the BACK of the cemetery so when you come in the front, the uninscribed back sides of the monuments are facing the entrance. Subsequent research revealed the earliest settlers had their feet pointing toward the east and the head of the coffin toward the west, ready to rise up and face the “new day” (the sun) when “the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised” or when Christ would appear and they would be reborn.
And there were the Van Dorns…like soldiers in a row. Some of the tombstones had broken so low to the ground that just the death dates were left. But Deborah Van Dorn was there…next to her mother, Mary Irwin Van Dorn. Mary’s death date was still was visible though the top half of her tombstone was long gone. To Deborah’s right was her sister, Margaret Van Dorn Holmes.
Deborah was Peter Van Dorn’s eldest child and when his wife Mary died, Deborah took over the household duties. She finally married in her thirties to a widowed farmer named Samuel Burlew who was considerably older and died leaving Deborah alone and childless. Deborah married again soon after to Obadiah Chase, another elderly widower. The inscription on her tombstone declares her as Deborah Van Dorn Chase, wife of Obadiah. Gale settled in the meadow grass near the tombstones and I was once again off to see what the remainder of the cemetery could reveal.
Spirited and energized by the beautiful day and the realization of almost two years of research, I headed back to Gale seated at Deborah’s grave and began to photograph the cemetery and surrounds. With the field work completed, Gale and I headed down the gentle slope to the car only to discover that I had both cameras but NO car keys. And the car has an automatic, electronic locking system. You know, in case of cows.
Had I left the keys in the car? A car window was down thanks to Gale’s fascination with the electronics and my newly found sense of “what the heck”. I opened the car through the passenger’s window and the alarm began to reverberate across the cemetery and into the peaceful Enfield countryside. After a quick, frantic look in the car for the keys, I realized that in my enthusiasm to begin the cemetery walk I had absent- mindedly clutched my cameras with my keys in one hand before beginning the typical methodical walk up and down every row. My slacks had no pockets. Everything had been in my hands.
So with the constant clarion of the car alarm ringing in my ears, I settled my elderly brother in the passenger’s seat while I began to retrace my steps to find the set of keys. Somehow, though a sinking feeling lurked, I knew…I KNEW…I would find those keys.
Putting logic aside, I visualized the set of keys in the grass and after walking one short row, I lifted my head and made a bee-line for Deborah Van Dorn. The thought of Deborah had just popped into my head and I went straight to her monument. There were the keys in the meadow grass, metal winking in the sunlight in front of Deborah’s tombstone. I swallowed hard and placed my hand upon her tombstone. And I thanked her…for a lot of things…not just the keys. It seems Deborah continues to watch over her family.
Within two steps of her grave, I tapped the button to stop the alarm, turned, apologized to the cows and headed down to the car.
Gale laughed and I did, too, but with considerable relief because we knew that with no keys…in the middle of nowhere…and a bleating alarming system, we might just have to settle in among the good people of Enfield. Jack. Steve. Semper Fi.
In a few moments we were once again on our way and headed toward Mecklenburg Road (the old Catskill Turnpike) where my 3rd great grandfather, Peter Van Dorn had built and run his tavern in 1820. We were on the next quest for a possible group photo site for our upcoming Purdy Gathering. And there, it was…the old New York State historical marker…weathered and askew along a deep roadside gully. Where the bustling Van Dorn tavern once had stood, now a rusted house trailer sat anchored by an old apple tree that was rotted, split and black as midnight. Definitely not a scenic or poetic backdrop for our family photo. I took a picture of the New York State marker anyway…positioning myself to avoid the ugly reality of what was now sitting atop the grounds of the longgone historic tavern.
The food and the adventures of the day tamped down the energy we had been thriving on earlier in the day and we did have an hour long drive back to Auburn. We headed northward finally arriving in Auburn just before 4PM. Seventy five year old Gale was tired. He had thoroughly enjoyed the day and was sleepy after all of the excitement and with the local diner’s meatloaf, mashed pototoes and gravy settling comfortably in his stomach. After a good hug and a promise to begin again early tomorrow, I left Gale at his Auburn home and headed back to Skaneateles for a well deserved, ice cold vodka martini and a serious writing session.
In Auburn I was so tantalizingly close to the North Street Cemetery and burial site of 5th great grandfather, Gideon Tyler and his family that I just had to make one more stop. One more. At that point I was becoming aware that my luncheon beverage was now beginning to have an effect. Do archaeologists pee? And where? I should research that, I thought. Uncomfortable, but determined, I found a parking space nearby and walked to the front gate.
The Tylers are the very first row next the front gate so that was a no brainer, but I understood that William and Abalena may be in the back and it couldn’t be THAT big a cemetery and I am not THAT uncomfortable and it IS a nice day and it IS early.
I walked back and forth through the rows of tombstones and up the hill and …oh…my…God….it went back and back and fanned out beyond my sight line. Old tombstone after old tombstone and I had left the cemetery burial information in the car. At that point I was definitely tired of guessing how much longer my body would allow me to talk myself out of …well you know. So another day. Forgive me, William and Abalena. Another day.
Today we are off to Cazenovia in search of Martin lore and gravesite visits. It is another beautiful day. Now dear ones and fellow researchers, I have to take a quick shower and grab breakfast. And wear pants with pockets!
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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