Jonathan Brown’s grave still stands nearly 185 years after his death. Brown fought in the Revolution before becoming one of Bowdoin’s earliest settlers. John Terhune / The Forecaster

Tucked into the trees beside Lewis Hill Road in Bowdoin, beyond a tangle of fallen branches and abandoned furniture, sits a hidden piece of history.

Most of the headstones have been chipped or broken, but the oldest one of all stands tall: beneath the earth lie the remains of Capt. Jonathan Brown, veteran of the American Revolution.

Most of the cemetery’s headstones have been destroyed since Jonathan Brown was buried in 1837. John Terhune / The Forecaster

“In memory of Capt. Jonathan Brown who died July 14, 1837, aged 84 years & 9 months,” the inscription reads. “He lived and died in hope of eternal life.”

Today, squeezing through the brush into the unkempt little cemetery feels like finding a place that’s been lost to time. Yet thanks to the efforts of a retiree with a passion for history, Bowdoin is poised to bring the site back to the present.

“I just became driven to find out more of the story,” John Wilbur said of the hundreds of hours he says he’s poured into researching the history of the Brown family.

Debris, including fallen branches, beer bottles and discarded furniture, line the gravel pit next to the hidden cemetery. John Terhune / The Forecaster

Wilbur, a Worcester, Massachusetts, resident who trained as a historian before spending most of his career in college administration, bought a farm in Bowdoin in 1968 before selling it and leaving Maine after two years.


But even decades later, he still found his mind wandering back to the property, which had been stocked with farm equipment from the early 20th century, untouched for a generation.

“All of it was still there,” he said. “Like time had stood still for 30 years.”

A few years ago, he began researching the family history of Lavinia “Viney” Brown, the woman who had sold him the farm. Through online records and old newspaper clippings, he followed her lineage back five generations to her great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Brown.

Like Wilbur, Brown was a Massachusetts man-turned-Mainer. Hailing from Wellfleet on Cape Cod, he fought in the Revolution before becoming one of the first people to settle in Bowdoin, according to “Early Bowdoin, Maine Families and some of their descendants,” written by Jayne Bickford and Charlene Bartlett.

Another book by that pair led Wilbur to the Brown family cemetery, where he located the grave, but the find brought him no pleasure, he said. Instead, he was dismayed by site’s the poor condition.

“It just tore me up to see that sight,” said Wilbur, a veteran of the Marine Corps. “It hurt me.”


He began reaching out to groups like the Maine Old Cemetery Association and the American Legion, which occasionally helps maintain veterans’ graves. He also brought the site to the attention of Reuben Wheeler, a land surveyor who sometimes works with the town of Bowdoin.

Longtime Bowdoin resident Reuben Wheeler will work with the Select Board on a plan to maintain the cemetery. Contributed / Reuben Wheeler

Maine law requires municipalities to maintain the graves of veterans within ancient burial grounds. Now that the town of Bowdoin is aware of Brown’s grave, it will take steps to improve the cemetery, according to Wheeler, owner of Wheeler Surveying.

“I’ve come across cemeteries all across this part of the country,” Wheeler said. “I’m 100% aware of the responsibility of not losing these things.”

According to Wheeler, he and Bowdoin Select Board members will visit the gravesite this spring to determine their next steps. Besides cleaning the area and clearing it of debris, the town may consider putting a fence around the cemetery so that passersby recognize it as a landmark.

It may seem like a lot of effort for a plot of land that largely receded from memory years ago. But for veterans like Wilbur and American Legion Department of Maine Second Vice Commander Al McKay, it will honor not just American history, but every service member living today.

“As veterans, we’re all one big family,” McKay said. “We’re just honoring a family member in my view.”

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