Portland Girl Scouts earn gold, unearth history at forgotten cemetery
PORTLAND — Samantha Allshouse and Kayla Theriault set their sights on cleaning up a forgotten cemetery in East Deering to earn a Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can receive.
But their project took them all the way to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The girls have spent the last several months cleaning up, restoring and researching the history of a largely forgotten and neglected cemetery behind Presumpscot Elementary School.
It's a cemetery known by many names: Grand Truck, East Deering, Presumpscot and the Back Cove cemetery.
The girls were able to confirm the location of 84 of the 104 people believed to be buried there, using a combination of historical records and ground-penetrating radar provided by the city.
They also discovered the cemetery is the final resting place of eight veterans – a Revolutionary War vet, six War of 1812 vets and a Civil War vet.
The discoveries followed the girls initial reaction to seeing the overgrown cemetery peppered with broken glass, where headstones had been kicked over and spray-painted.
"I just thought it was disrespectful," Allshouse said.
"I was thinking of my dad's own grave," Theriault said.
The pair enlisted the help of Herb Adams, a former Democratic state representative and local historian, to find the service histories of the veterans.
Last Sunday, the girls met Adams and Girl Scout leader Marianne Chapman at the cemetery, only hours before the they were to receive their awards in a ceremony at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth.
Adams carried a manila folder he had just received from the National Archives.
"For the first time ever, you're reuniting these veterans with their records," Adams told the girls in a tone that underlined the historic moment. "And on the bi-centennial of the War of 1812."
The buried include Crispus Graves, a North Yarmouth resident who fought in the Revolution War; Civil War vet James Moseley; and John Sawyer, Joseph Sawyer, William Sawyer, Samual Blake, Andrews Graves and Joseph Merrill.
Adams said he received service records for four Joseph Merrills, so more research is needed to figure out which one is buried there.
"The problem is we're dealing with dusty records, ancient lists and colorful spellings that make it difficult," Adams said. "(But) we'll figure it out and do them all honor."
The girls hope to be able to secure headstones from the Veteran's Administration to give the veterans the honor and dignity they deserve.
Allshouse said it is impossible to know where the veterans are buried, so they hope to secure the monuments and line them up – like an infantry – next to the kiosk.
The stones will be a crowning achievement to an ambitious project. Since most of the headstones had been destroyed, the girls marked the grave sites they found using stones that are painted white.
Each stone contains a number, which corresponds to a name on the kiosk.
Chapman said the Gold Award goes well beyond a regular service project and requires the display of leadership. The project must also last beyond the scouts' involvement.
The cemetery project wasn't their first choice. Allshouse wanted to raise awareness about drunk driving and Theriault wanted to work with disabled kids.
But both dove into the project, going so far as to dress up in 1812-era garb for a community tour, and spending five hours the day before, which was also the day of their senior prom, hand-cutting the tall grass.
To ensure the project continues after their involvement, Allshouse helped develop a lesson plan, which touches on math, art and science, to educate elementary school children about the cemetery. Theriault lined up donors for the kiosk and helped establish the stewardship program.
The hope is that when students learn more about the history of the cemetery they will be more inclined to take care of it and less inclined to vandalize it.
To that end, the girls have successfully enlisted the school's parent committee to be stewards of the cemetery. The committee will take care of the site and report any vandalism to police, they said.
Allshouse and Theriault received their Gold Awards on Sunday, but Adams said their project will continue to enrich the East Deering neighborhood.
Theriault, 19, already holds bronze and silver scout awards, so the gold completes the set. "It's the greatest award a girl scout can get," she said.
The 18-year-old Allshouse, meanwhile, said she has mixed emotions about receiving this capstone. "I'm happy for it," she said,"but I'm sad because it's the end of being a girl and the start of being a woman."
While the girls have reached the pinnacle of their scouting careers, Adams said what they have left behind will serve the community for years to come.
"The young ladies have done a noble and heart-felt thing – a good deed for their community, which will last long beyond their Girl Scout years," Adams said. "They've made a good launch into life.
"And they've made history, too," he added.