Walking Tour: Jefferson Street Cemetery

Amidst the daily hustle and bustle of bikes, automobiles and foot traffic along a section of Route 219 in Ellicottville, the dead lie peacefully. Amidst the sun, and snow, and wind and rain, more than 430 gravestones - and the names engraved on them - lie peacefully. Amidst the changing of the times, of governments and smartphones and culture, a segment of our nation’s history lies peacefully.

When you first gaze upon the Jefferson Street Cemetery, you think of death. Cemeteries tend to have that effect on people. But beneath each white gravestone is a story; an individual celebration of the human spirit. These are the people who built our country from the ground up, who bled, and sweat, and sacrificed to make it a better place for their children - and forus.

On Saturday, July 26, the 2nd Annual Walking Tour of the Jefferson Street Cemetery will take place. This event has evolved into so much more than just a walk around the cemetery. It’s a dedication to those who are buried there and a commemoration of each individual story.

Four years ago, project manager Gail Carucci attended a historical society meeting in Ellicottville. The Bryant Hill Cemetery project had just been completed, and the society was looking for volunteers to spearhead the next big renovation project - the Jefferson Street Cemetery. Carucci obliged.

The very first thing that she did was to have the cemetery listed on the national register, which involved research and a lengthy application. It was granted to them in 2012.

“Unfortunately, getting your name in the register doesn’t automatically get you a new sign,” Carucci said. “So we did some fundraising. The cost of the sign was close to $900, but we found the William G. Pomeroy Foundation that had just started a new program - supplying signs for the national register. We couldn’t believe our luck. As the first ones to apply, we were granted the money and had the sign made.”

Beautifully done, the new sign represents the mysteriousness and general aura that the cemetery emits. If you walk by the cemetery at night, there’s a certain angle that makes the sign glow from the light of passing cars.

“The first summer, our main goal was to start cleaning the stones in the cemetery,” Carucci said. “I enlisted the help of 30 volunteers, and Crandall’s Memorial (of Olean) held a class on how to clean the stones. That first summer, we cleaned all of the stones (430+). It was an excellent start to the project.”

Since the Town of Ellicottville owns the cemetery, it provided the funds necessary to bring in experts from Crandall’s to deep clean, repair and up-rite the stones. With around 100 stones done per summer, there are only 30-40 left for them to do … perfect timing for the 2nd Annual Walk.

Carucci also brought in students from Buffalo State University to use their GPR, or ground penetrating radar. Since the plot map of the cemetery was destroyed in the Town Hall fire in the 1960s, the society wanted to know if there was someone buried beneath the open areas in the cemetery.  Although the GPR provided information enough to see if the ground had been disturbed, it was inconclusive when it came to actual graves. However, the society’s work at restoring and filling in the blanks remains extremely admirable.

The Walk on July 26 will start at the Ellicottville Historical Museum. (Two walking tours will be offered that day, at 1pm and 3pm.)  Not only will the information provided be fulfilling and history-laden, but it will be delivered by 17 actors and actresses, all of whom will portray someone buriedin the cemetery. Of the 17, four will be portraying their direct descendants. Truly, history in motion. For instance, Dave Wooley will portray Nathaniel Fish, who owned the Fish Tavern at the top of Fish Hill.

“Our walkers will be given a memento for the day,” Carucci said. “We’ll have an old-fashioned newspaper, styled 14x11 - just like they used to. The front page will have old ads from the old Ellicottville Post, while the middle will include our characters and who they’re portrayed by.”

Jon Bucknam, an American hero through and through, served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the United States Navy. He’ll be portraying the part of Corporal Byron Bentley, a Union war hero. In 1995, he began participating in Civil War reenactments as a Boy Scout and hasn’t looked back.

“The Civil War is arguably the single most important turning point of our nation’s history,” he said. “In order to know your future, you need to know where you came from. My house is a museum. I love collecting artifacts from that time period, and the most important part of a portrayal is knowing someone - who they were, what they did, their significance to our nation’s history.”

This is Bucknam’s first year out of the military, and he’s been busy reenacting. (At the timeof this piece’s writing, he was portraying John S. Mosby of Mosby’s Rangers - the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry of the Confederacy.)

Dawn Westfall, who recently volunteered to become the president of the Ellicottville Historical Society, will play therole of Eliza Shankland. Shankland was one of two women who initiated a Jefferson Street Cemetery fund for its upkeep around 1917.

“After I agreed to play the part, Gail provided me with a copy of Eliza’s obituary so that I could find out more about her,” she said. “I had to laugh when I noted that Eliza had a sister that lived in Grand Rapids, MI and died after suffering a hip injury. I recently had a hip injury and I have a sister that lives in the Grand Rapids area!”

Depicting someone who lived all those years ago can be masterfully difficult. Research has to be thorough, so as not to get any of the information wrong. Dawn looked at records of where they lived, who their families were and their obituaries to piece together a strong narrative that stays historically accurate.

Olean native Della Moore spends her time volunteering to ensure the preservation of our local history. She’ll be portraying Martha Maybee, who married Ellicottville native and Union war hero Abe Maybee. Although she doesn’t sharea descendant’s connection to Martha, there is one that is vastly important - both of them are African American.

“I want all African American history to be known,” Della said. “Without the infusion of African American history, we wouldn’t have American history. History is my passion, and I can’t say no to something that’s going to herald the unheralded heroes.”

Della stressed the importance of speaking with your family - your aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents - to ensure that each family’s history remains alive. If not, the history is dead and gone. This won’t be Della’s first time portraying someone from the past. As part of Olean’s African American Cultural Development Center, she’ll soon be playing the part of Sarah Johnson, a runaway slave who settled in Olean.

“The dynamic of the Civil War and slavery changed our country,” she said. “All of that is so very important. If you take away that part of our nation’s history, our nation’s history isn’t the same. You have a certain respect for those who went through this time period, and I refuse to allow that history to die.”

History can ofttimes be cruel and unforgiving. Those who deserve to be remembered are lost, while those we wish to forget are remembered. But then there are those involved - the champions of history, the ones who refuse to let the everyday people be forgotten - who make sure we don’t forget our ancestral American heritage.

The 2ndAnnual Jefferson Street Cemetery Walk is set for Saturday, July 26. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children, and can be purchased the day of the tour at the Ellicottville Historical Society Museum.  For further information, email Gail Carucci at glcarucci@aol.com.

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