Portrait of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Talbot. Mary Talbot was the leader of the Samaritan Society and of the effort to reclaim the neglected cemetery atop Meeting House Hill. South Portland Historical Society photo

In the early 1800s, the Second Parish became known as the First Congregational Church and, as with any long-running group or organization, membership had its ups and downs. The 1850s and 1860s (including the years of the Civil War) were challenging years for the church, and the care and upkeep of the adjacent graveyard suffered greatly.

By the late 1860s, the cemetery was in deplorable condition and community members were starting to look elsewhere to bury their loved ones. According to one article, “The condition of the cemetery was in rather poor shape and its outward appearance anything but attractive. It was over run with bushes and weeds, all traces of pathways through it had been obliterated by time and lack of care, the stones were twisted out of position and some thrown out entirely, presenting a rather shameful picture.”

Women in the Ferry Village and Willard neighborhoods first started working in the cemetery around 1870. They made a lot of progress but, by 1873, they realized that in order to ensure the future of the cemetery, they would need to do more. They met and began to make plans to establish a formal organization to enlarge and improve the burying ground.

Officers of the Samaritan Society. Seated in the front row are Louise Bishop Proctor, Betsy Upton Willard, unknown, and Mary Talbot. The two women standing are also unknown. South Portland Historical Society photo

The women in Ferry Village officially established their group as the Samaritan Society in 1874; the women of Willard formed a similar group, known first as the Evergreen Society, then the Evergreen Circle. Both groups had a mission, by-laws, and held weekly meetings.

Also in 1874, at meetings of the Samaritan Society in July and August, it was voted to organize a cemetery corporation. This would keep the business of enlarging and maintaining the cemetery separate from the fundraising and social activities of the Samaritans.

The Mount Pleasant Cemetery Corporation was thus established with its own mission and by-laws. The first elected officers were Reuben S. Smart, president (a stone mason); Mrs. Mary Talbot, vice president; George F. Henley, secretary; and Daniel Pillsbury, treasurer (the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Corporation was later legally incorporated, through an act of the state legislature, in 1899).

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Louise Bishop Proctor was one of the longest-running members of the Samaritan Society. She was elected secretary in the organization’s very first year and members reelected her to the position for over 25 years. South Portland Historical Society photo

In an article in the Portland Daily Press in 1874, at the time when the cemetery corporation was being formed and the town had voted to enlarge the cemetery, recognition was given to the members of the Samaritan Society and Evergreen Circle:

“In justice to the ladies of Ferry and Point [Willard] villages, it is but proper to say that they have been instrumental in bringing about this much needed improvement. Until within a few years the cemetery near the North Congregational church was neglected, and consequently in a dilapidated condition. Briers, brambles and weeds had nearly obliterated the resting places of the dead. But in a period of five years, the ladies by organized and individual efforts have built and improved fences and gates, laid out avenues, removed boulders and underbush and ornamented the grounds with flowers and shrubbery, the lots had all been taken up, hence a demand for an enlargement.”

According to another early news article, after cleaning up the cemetery, “It was then discovered that a more systematic way of raising money was necessary and in 1874 a society was incorporated under the name of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Corporation to whose hands the work of improving the burying ground was committed. The parish was petitioned to transfer its interest in the grounds to the corporation and the town to enlarge the grounds. Both of these things were done. The town purchased and deeded to the corporation the land, 100 feet on the west and north sides of the old ground. There was a stone wall on those sides, and this was removed and the whole enclosed by a neat fence. The ground was surveyed and graded, avenues of sufficient width for carriages to drive to any part were made, paths were cut, trees set out around the whole, and a well dug. The ground was then divided up into lots of various sizes and prices established to bring them within the means of all. The lots were quickly purchased and improved and many monuments were erected. A tomb and a hearse were needed, so the ladies again set to work, and within a short time there was a tomb suitable to the requirements of the place and a hearse and hearse house purchased and built.”

Mount Pleasant Cemetery was founded in 1734 by the Second Parish of Falmouth. The parish graveyard was simply called the old burying place on the hill for nearly 140 years before residents in the Ferry Village and Willard neighborhoods decided to name it Mount Pleasant in the early 1870s. South Portland Historical Society photo

The Samaritan Society was the more active of the two cemetery groups. The Samaritans were the primary fundraising group for the cemetery. Between annual membership dues and various fundraising events, the group was always finding ways to pay for improvements at the cemetery.

The Samaritans were known for their annual fair that was held at the Union Opera House (also known as the Union Hall, on the corner of Monroe and School streets); the women would organize musical entertainment and offer items for sale to raise funds.

Through their fundraising efforts, the Samaritans were responsible for many improvements at Mount Pleasant, including purchasing some land for cemetery enlargement; funding a tomb, hearse (purchased in 1880 for $183) and hearse house; funding the Summer House, so that cemetery visitors had a place to get in from the weather; in 1895 they hired the Thomas Laughlin Company to install an iron fence around the cemetery; and in 1900, they contracted with Fletcher & Crowell to make a crest with the words “Mount Pleasant Cemetery” that was installed over the main entrance gate.

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Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Talbot was perhaps the greatest force behind the reclamation of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in the late 1800s. Not only was she elected to serve as the first president of the Samaritan Society in 1874, but she was reelected as president every year, until her death in 1899. Mary Talbot was also instrumental in the creation of a formalized organization to ensure the future of the cemetery. When the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Corporation was formed in 1874, she was elected to serve as its vice president – the only woman to serve as a trustee or officer of the corporation at that time.

Born Mary Elizabeth Stone in 1831 in Portland, she moved with her family to Cape Elizabeth (now South Portland) where her dad worked as a ship carpenter. She met and married Charles T. Talbot, an engineer, in 1851 and raised three sons: George, Charles S., and Thomas.

Their oldest son George died tragically in 1870 in a railroad accident (where he was employed) when he was just 18 years old. They buried him in the cemetery next to the church. This was precisely when the cemetery was in poor shape and near the time of the beginning of the clean-up of the cemetery. Mary’s son Charles was working as a clerk in a local grocery at this point. Her youngest son Thomas was now a young teenager. With George gone and her other two sons growing up and leaving the home, this would have left Mary with the time and incentive to lead the effort to take charge in the cemetery management.

Along with Mary Talbot, several other women were long-time leaders and members of the Samaritan Society.

Louise Bishop Proctor was elected secretary at the first meeting, a position that she held for over 25 years (she died in 1914). Betsy Upton Willard, wife of Captain Daniel D. Willard, and Angie Lee both served as vice president for many years. Julia B. Henley, wife of Capt. Benjamin F. Henley, was elected as treasurer in that first year and both she and her husband were active volunteers in the cemetery clean-up/improvement for many years. Julia’s mother-in-law, Elizabeth Henley, would also serve as treasurer. Some other active members of the Samaritans were the Upton, Gregory, Gardner, and Jewett families.

Note to readers: I will conduct a tour of Mount Pleasant Cemetery this fall. The cemetery tour and other historical society programs will be announced in our fall newsletter that will be mailed to all current society members. Admission to the cemetery tour, and other society tours, lectures and programs, is free for current members.

A one-year family membership is only $25 and supports our mission of preserving local history. Donations can be made through our Online Museum at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, or if you’d prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail to us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thank you. If you need to contact the society, we can be reached by email at sphistory04106@gmail.com or by phone at 207-767-7299.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at sphistory04106@gmail.com.

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