Service Day at the Little Bermudian Cemetery

Last Thursday, a group of history club students teamed up with the Oakes Museum of Natural History to work toward preserving a dilapidated cemetery of an historic Brethren community of the late 18th to early 19th century. The Little Bermudian Brethren community was a plant, or off-shoot, of the religious community at Ephrata Cloister in the late 1700s. Migrating across the Susquehanna River from Lancaster county, this group of Swiss German Christians settled in scattered farms in what is today Washington and Franklin township in northern York County. We’ve written about one of the leading members, Abraham Stouffer, at this site. His friends and family are buried in the Little Bermudian Cemetery (a.k.a. Asper Burial Ground).

As I noted here about our fieldwork on Service Day, our plans this year included:

1. Excavating an embankment that we suspect contains bulldozed gravestones

2. Documenting gravestones

3. Completing a Pennsylvania Bureau of Historic Preservation Cemetery Survey Form to register the site with the state

4. Conducting coring tests within the cemetery in areas we suspect have buried tombstones

5. Weeding the cemetery with gardening tools

6. Taking photographs

The project was even more successful than I imagined it would be. Our group of seven students, plus Ken Mark (director of the Oakes Museum), Diane Phillips (owner of the Stouffer Farm), and myself, were able to accomplish quite a lot on a beautiful spring day, and made some important discoveries in the process.

First of all, we continued to excavate the embankment that we had started digging in Service Day 2012. In that year, we had discovered a footstone fragment and a couple of other stone objects that clearly derived from markers in the cemetery. These confirmed a written report dating to 1941 that plowing had destroyed some of the cemetery and broken up the stones. Fortunately, this year, excavation in two trenches 2 x 2 m in size produced no clear examples of additional stones. There was, in short, only a little evidence from the embankments for this report – and that, I think, is a good thing, in that our sample rules out an extensive area of displaced grave stones.

Below, Greg Slye in Trench 1 and Tyler Stone in Trench 2 at the start of the day.

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Katy Kaslow digs into Trench 2

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In the cemetery itself, we used an auger to locate buried head and footstones in the cemetery, and conducted a careful inspection of all the stones in the cemetery. Our goal was to determine if we had located every known individual of the cemetery. A family of groundhogs had displaced enormous amounts of soil over many decades and buried and moved stones. There is a local legend that an area resident had once removed stones from the cemetery to his house until local outrage forced him to return them. We were interested, then, in whether the stones we see today are still marking the place of original burials, or whether they represent stones out of their original context.

To our delight, the use of the auger, combined with scraping away the excess deposits of groundhog deposits, revealed the bottom of a headstone in German. The inscription belongs to the stone of Rael Beisel, the wife of Peter Beisel, who was the nephew of the famous Conrad Beissel of Ephrata Cloister. Although Rael’s name is now missing from this stone, Harry Sinner’s inventory of the cemetery in 1941 recorded the same German phrase we see here: Im Jahr 1794, der monatden Hornung dn 1. In other words, we had unknowingly uncovered part of a headstone of a missing community member that was known to observers of this cemetery 70 years ago.

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In a similar way, we documented an entirely unknown member of the community. One can see from the fragment below the letters AIAHB. Our current interpretation is that this represents the headstone of an ISAIAH B-. Who this Isaiah is we will have to determine. But Harry Sinner does not note the stone in his record in 1941.

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Using the auger, we also located the footstones of John Pentz and Philipena Pentz, labeled respectively JP and PP. These was important finds because they proved – in their spatial relationship to the headstones – that the they marked the exact place of burial. It rules out the theory at least that these stones have moved around significantly.

Katy Kaslow, Kelly Henderson, and Ken Mark act as living scales below.

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In a similar way, we used the auger to locate the footstone of Abraham Stouffer himself. Marked by the letters A. S., this 75 centimeter stone was entirely buried through groundhog displacement. This is the top of the stone just below surface level.

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Below, Tyler Stone, Sean Barron, and Katy Kaslow uncover the footstone.

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After significant effort, most of the stone had been revealed.

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Tyler and Sean show off the footstone that had been completed buried.

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We re-erected this footstone at the proper place above ground on the east end of the burial of Abraham Stouffer. Below, the group poses in front of the stone. From left to right: Greg Slye, Shane Reed, Kyle Polinka, Tyler Stone, Katy Kaslow, Sean Barron, and Kelly Henderson

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We will probably return to the cemetery at least one more season – in the Historical Archaeology class in the fall – to straighten the stones, remove excess groundhog piles, and seek additional buried foot or head stones. The results of our geophysical survey here in 2013 will guide our efforts.

Thanks to all who came out and made this another successful Service Day event.

One thought on “Service Day at the Little Bermudian Cemetery

  1. Pingback: Join us for Service Day (April 16) at the Asper Cemetery | History on the Bridge

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