Human bones and the remains of a Victorian-era coffin were found in an area of Sanford that had been converted from a cemetery to a school playground in the 1930s.

The bones, including a skull, were found Thursday by construction workers digging a water line to Main Street from the property where the Emerson School stood before it was demolished last month.

“They thought they had moved all of the people who had been interred (in the old cemetery), but they must have missed this one for whatever reason,” Police Chief Thomas Connolly said Friday.

Connolly said it is possible the remains could be from a child. Pieces of hardware found with the bones indicate some sort of casket was used. On Friday, the remains were being collected in collaboration with the historical society and a local funeral home, he said. Construction work was halted on that area of the site, which is being turned into a Cumberland Farms gas station, and the State Medical Examiner’s Office was notified that a grave had been disturbed in a known cemetery area.

Connolly said he will work with the city and historical society to identify the remains before they are re-interred in Oakdale Cemetery.

“We want to do this with all the respect we can. You try to have as much dignity as possible for the person,” he said. “Unfortunately, the grave has been disturbed.”

Harland Eastman, president of the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society, said he was contacted Thursday by police and town officials to see if there was an explanation for why human remains would be found on the property. Eastman immediately knew the answer: The property was Sanford’s first municipal cemetery.

The land on Main Street opposite the Goodall Mansion was purchased by Thomas Goodall, who founded the Goodall Mills in the 1860s. Eastman said it is not known exactly when Woodlawn Cemetery was founded, but a map of Sanford from 1889 shows the property being used as a cemetery. He said the cemetery was also mentioned in the book “History of Sanford.”

The town began moving graves out of the cemetery around 1900 to make space for The Emerson School, which was built in 1901 and opened to students in 1902.

Some of the cemetery’s graves remained in a side lot next to the school for years. More graves were moved in the decades following the school’s construction.

“It was a long-winded affair,” Eastman said. “They were still moving graves in the 1930s.”

Many graves in that era were not marked and did not have headstones, so it was difficult to know where people were buried, Eastman said. City records show 77 bodies were exhumed and re-interred at Oakdale Cemetery by 1933 when Emerson School purchased the lot to build a playground.

The historical society shared a photo of the front page of the Sanford Tribune and Advocate from Sept. 17, 1931. The lead headline that day read, “Three-hundred Emerson School children cheer as Woodlawn Cemetery is converted into playground by town officials.”

On Friday morning, the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society posted an update on Facebook about the discovery.

“(The remains) were in a collapsed coffin in the northeast corner of the former Woodlawn Cemetery. This coffin appears to have had a single-pane glass window, which was not unusual in the Victorian Era,” the post said.

The exhumation was completed by Friday evening. The area of the coffin was undisturbed and the historical society is confident no other remains are in the area, according to a Facebook update. The remains and artifacts were taken to Carll Heald & Black Funeral Home in Springvale.

The brick Emerson School – named for Ralph Waldo Emerson – was demolished in April. It had closed in 2013 because it needed extensive repairs. The city sold the property to Cumberland Farms in 2016.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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