PORTLAND – Kayla Theriault was overwhelmed as she looked at the gravestones marking the resting place of six veterans who died nearly 200 years ago.

The new white gravestones sit in a cemetery tucked into a clearing in the woods behind Presumpscot School, the entrance marked only by a small sign on a chain-link fence.

The Grand Trunk Cemetery, once vandalized with spray paint and obscured by years of overgrowth, has been given new life by two Girl Scouts who undertook a two-year project to rehabilitate the space in East Deering.

“I’m just happy we got to make peace for them,” Theriault, 20, said after she laid a wreath next to the graves of veterans of the War of 1812.

Theriault and Samantha Allshouse, both of Portland, were high school students when they began their project, “Unearthing the Roots of the Back Cove and East Deering Communities.”

Allshouse, 20, is now a sophomore at the University of Maine in Farmington and Theriault works as a part-time nanny. The project earned them a Gold Award, the Girl Scouts’ highest honor.

On Saturday, they were joined by two dozen people for a dedication ceremony that included the Veterans of Foreign Wars Deering Memorial Post honor guard and the playing of taps in honor of the veterans buried there.

Veterans recognized at the ceremony included Crispus Graves, who served in the 31st Regiment under Col. Edmund Phinney during the Revolutionary War, and War of 1812 veterans Andrew Graves, John Sawyer, Joseph Sawyer, William Sawyer and Samuel Blake. All were buried in unmarked graves at the cemetery between 1818 and 1860.

Allshouse and Theriault were looking for a project when their troop leader, Marianne Chapman, told them about Grand Trunk, which likely got its name when the land was used to bury people who died on the Grand Trunk Railroad trains.

The cemetery — also referred to in city records as East Deering Cemetery and Back Cove Cemetery at Presumpscot Street — was used for burials from 1793 to 1893.

Documents uncovered during the project confirm 74 people are buried in the cemetery, but Allshouse said the true number is probably close to 100. Allshouse and Theriault identified eight veterans buried in the cemetery.

When Allshouse and Theriault first saw the cemetery, they were saddened to see stones and trees covered with blue spray paint.

The clean-up took countless hours and attracted help from Presumpscot School students and city public works employees. A new kiosk was installed with information about the cemetery and a map of more than 100 known burial places. The plots now are marked with small painted stones.

“We were appalled at how bad everything looked before,” Allshouse said. “It was a complete disrespect to everyone buried here. We wanted to give them the respect they deserved.”

David Millard, a fifth-grade teacher at Presumpscot School, assisted with the project. For years, teachers from the school have used the space as an outdoor classroom and students helped keep the area clean.

In 2000, his fourth-grade class began taking care of the cemetery. But, Millard said, there was never a year-round effort until the Girl Scouts stepped in.

“They’ve built a foundation to keep all eyes on the cemetery,” Millard said.

Several descendants of people buried at Grand Trunk attended the ceremony, including Robert Sawyer, 86, of South Portland. He said several people from his family — including War of 1812 veterans — are buried there.

“I feel ashamed of myself for not doing something to take care of this place,” he said. “I can’t express my feelings of how much I thank (Allshouse and Theriault) for it. It’s heartwarming to know there’s still people who will take the time to do this stuff.”

The ceremony also included the dedication of a memorial bench for Zoe Sarnacki, who was 18 when she was murdered on May 25, 2009.

She was a member of Millard’s class that helped care for the cemetery. An inscription on the bench encourages people to sit and reflect on their blessings.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

 


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