Falmouth's hidden cemeteries stand test of time

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FALMOUTH — Overlooking the Presumpscot River, off Allen Avenue Extension, rests a small, centuries-old burial ground.

But like many other historic cemeteries in town, hardly anyone knows it’s there.

Steve Linskey, 73, who with his wife Darlene owns the land that includes the cemetery, said he has been taking care of the property for about 50 years. The burial ground – the resting place of Revolutionary War Maj. James Merrill, Merrill’s wife Abigail, who died days after he did in 1806, and a woman named Deborah Knight – is known as the Merrill-Knight Cemetery.

There are several smaller, unmarked stones arraigned in the cemetery. Linskey said that three years ago an Eagle Scout group approached him to do a restoration project, which he agreed to after some hesitation.

The group was able to clean up the grave markers from decades of moss, and were able to put James Merrill’s broken stone back together. They were not able to piece together Merrill’s wife’s stone or Knight’s marker.

“They had to upright the stones, a lot were sunk into the ground,” Linskey said.

And while there is some history on the two Merrills and Knight, Linskey said there isn’t much on the unmarked stones. He said it’s unlikely they belong to any of the Merrill’s children, since those probably would have been marked.

But Merrill-Knight isn’t the only nearly unknown cemetery hidden in town. There are actually dozens of them, some family-owned and others taken care of by the town, sometimes hidden in the woods or in places where they are rarely stumbled upon.

There’s the Merrill Graveyard, for example, on Woodville Road. There are several people buried there, but the cemetery hasn’t had a new occupant since the Civil War was still raging.

Betsy Jo Whitcomb, a member of the Falmouth Historical Society, said the earliest burial there happened in 1803, and the most recent in 1863.

“Most of the stones are now buried or missing in this small roadside cemetery,” Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb said another cemetery that may or may not even exist anymore is the Poplar Ridge Cemetery on Blackstrap Road. The earliest burial there is said to have been in 1821, and the last around 1931, she said.

But Whitcomb said no one can find the cemetery, and it’s possible the people buried there were disinterred at some point.

“As far as we can tell the contents of that cemetery were dug up and buried in Cumberland,” Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb said she believes since most of the people who live in town aren’t from Falmouth originally, most people don’t know about most of the town’s oldest cemeteries.

She said she wished there were interest in the historical lessons these cemeteries can provide. The problem, she said, is that interest in history and genealogy “seems to come with age.”

“Usually people get more interested in genealogy after age 40,” Whitcomb said. She said older people will come to the society to see what they can find about their relatives, and often express regret about not asking their older relatives when they had the chance.

The town, the society and Falmouth Memorial Library have all done work on piecing together where cemeteries are, who is buried where, and information from the headstones.

“The problem I’ve come across is it seems record-keeping wasn’t important in those early years,” Whitcomb said. “People think they will find their ancestor’s history, but there are no records.”

Several cemeteries in town contain burial dates going back to the early 1800s. Some of the largest in town include Pine Grove and Blanchard cemeteries, which are still active burial grounds. Pine Grove, on Foreside Road, saw its first burial in 1818; Blanchard, at 215 Winn Road, holds the remains from three other cemeteries, and had its first burial in 1805.

Many of the other smaller cemeteries in town have not seen a burial in decades, and in some cases more than a century. The McGregor Cemetery on Falmouth Road, which is likely the most visible of the older cemeteries, hasn’t had a burial since 1876. Whitcomb said the Hardy Road Cemetery near the Westbrook border hasn’t had a burial since around 1890.

While the town is supposed to take care of any cemetery where a war veteran is buried, Linskey said that like most people, town officials probably wouldn’t even know how to find Merrill-Knight.

Linskey said he takes care of the cemetery to make sure someone is taking care of Maj. Merrill’s final resting place.

“That’s what triggers me,” he said.

There is also a plan for the first burial at Merrill-Knight since 1806, albeit not anytime soon.

“I’ll be buried out here,” Linskey said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

The Merrill-Knight Cemetery, which overlooks the Presumpscot River, is one of the  oldest cemeteries in Falmouth. It is the final resting place of Revolutionary War Maj. James Merrill, his wife Abigail, and a woman named Deborah Knight.

The Merrill-Knight Cemetery is not one of a kind. There are several other smaller cemeteries scattered around Falmouth, many of them centuries old.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.