The Ministry of Consumer Affairs is investigating after residents worried a pioneer cemetery on the edge of Brooke-Alvinston was bulldozed.
But the owner of the field says he only removed trees and the stones from the former church graveyard were taken years ago.
The farmer’s field at 8193 Petrolia Line was once home to the Victoria Methodist Episcopal Church. According to the Our Roots website, the church was built in the 1860s. In 1844, the church merged with two others from Mt. Carmel and Walnut to be part of the circuit in the Methodist Church of Canada. By 1892, the church was closed and the building was later moved away.
From the road, all that could be seen until about three weeks ago, was a small woodlot at the top of a gully about 200 meters from the road. Kevin Edwards, whose family has lived in Brooke-Alvinston and farms in the area, had been in the cemetery years ago and says it was likely less than a half acre.
Today, the woodlot is gone although the outline of the cemetery plot is still clear. There are also two rows, containing either the bases or pieces of headstones. In all, there appears to have been at least 8 to 10 headstones in the area at one time.
Some of the stones which remain bear deep white scratch marks. Others are broken, exposing what the markers would have looked like when the pioneers first laid them.
On a grey October day, green shoots of what appeared to be tiger lilies popped through the ground around what was left of the headstones – possibly planted there by families.
“My grandfather took me through there in 1992,” says Edwards. “There were big, big, big trees… and there were definitely monuments in there. They were interspersed with the trees. And there were some big memorial trees, too.”
The names on the gravestones were those of families who settled the area, some, he says, remain in Brooke-Alvinston and the Watford area.
Edwards believes the cemetery hadn’t been cared for since the 1970s and was overgrown.
But in early October, the lot was disturbed as a bulldozer started clearing the small plot.
An anonymous person blogged about the cemetery ‘being destroyed’ and Edwards posted the notice on the Facebook page of the heritage group Lost Lambton Found. That resulted in a flurry of angry messages.
Steve Loxton runs the page. He posted neighbours told him “The owner was informed by neighbours about the existence of the cemetery before any clearance work was ever commenced.
“They also said that the ‘machine operator’ was approached by another neighbour while doing the work and was told he was leveling a cemetery and he said he knew nothing about it and continued his work, despite this information!”
Brooke-Alvinston Mayor Don McGugan was also told about what was going on as the bulldozer was in the field. Municipal staff did go to the address to see what was going on but did not have jurisdiction to do anything since the cemetery wasn’t registered and was on private property. “I don’t have the authority,” he says. “It’s outside of our boundaries – I don’t know what the protocol is.”
When contacted by The Independent, the landowner, says his family has owned the land in the area since 1972 and was aware there was a cemetery on the property but thought it was further back.
The farmer, (The Independent has agreed withhold his name because of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs investigation), says local folklore says the stones from the cemetery were taken long ago by someone who used them to build steps in a home in Glencoe. “There were no complete headstones, they were taken years and years ago,” he says relaying the story of the Glencoe home. “I thought it was a little creepy.”
When the bulldozer went in to remove the trees and the first base was found, the landowner took a look. He says there were 10 basestones and remnants of the actual headstones. He adds its clear the headstones had been gone for a while, since trees and foliage surrounded them.
He says they were careful to remove the trees and leave the bases and didn’t disturb the land. “I have no intention of cropping over the gravesite; I never did – but you have to find them first.”
The landowner is disturbed that neighbours and heritage advocates have been trespassing on his land to investigate. He says in the past, he’s had problems with trespassers stringing wire up which could hurt ATV or snowmobile riders.
Members of Lost Lambton Found did provide information to the Minister of Consumer Affairs which regulates cemeteries. It has started an investigation into the destruction of the monuments.
A spokesperson for the Cemeteries Regulation Unit says it an investigator will visit the site in the next two weeks and will complete his investigation in two months. In an email to The Independent, spokesman Stephen Puddister says its not clear yet the woodlot did contain a cemetery. “The presence of broken and discarded monuments does not necessarily mean there are burials under the monuments. It is not unusual to find old, discarded monuments throughout Ontario,” he writes.
For Edwards, it is a sad situation. “These are the people that broke this land…they deserve some level of dignity,” says Kevin Edwards. “Their life has been now wiped from the map and the landscape.”
Wayne Edwards, Kevin’s father who has been trying to stop the cutting of woodlots, agrees. “We’ve got a real problem out in Lambton County the way that they’re doing things,” he says noting over 7,000 acres of trees have been cut in the last few years by his estimates. But he’s shocked this has happened. “I find it sickening.
“I appreciate the lady that gave us the heads up because who would have known…in that area there is not a lot of traffic and people who would have gone by would have saw just another woodlot gone,” he says.
For his part, the landowner says now that he’s found the cemetery, he plans to put a fence around the area, grass it and care for it. He’s found the name of a headstone company on one of the remaining pieces of the monuments and plans to do some research to see if he can find the names of the people buried there.
The landowner upset the Ministry of Consumer Affairs has been called in. “I’m disappointed that people would do it this way rather than calling me,” he says.
“I think I’ve gone out of my way to be careful (once the site was found) and I’m doing more with it than has been done in years.
“I intend to treat them with more respect than they were treated for the last 40 years.”