A grave situation: historian on mission to restore Clearview pioneer cemetery

Janie Cooper-Wilson rests herself on a canvas camp stool after wrestling with brush and weeds for the morning.

There’s still plenty of work to do at the before an Aug. 18 reblessing ceremony, and at the moment, she’s the only one on site.

“How in the hell did I get involved in all this?,” she asks with a laugh.

The Presbyterian cemetery sits on Hwy. 26, west of Sunnidale Corners. Aside from a wooden sign that’s leaning on its rotting posts, there’s little to distinguish what’s considered the area’s first established cemetery to passersby whizzing past on the highway.

The first burials on the one-acre site donated by farmer Samuel Lamont date back to 1833, and the last recorded burial was in 1901. The cemetery contains the remains of the area’s first postmaster and a veteran of the American Civil War.

In 1974, then-Sunnidale Township rearranged the gravestones onto a semicircular concrete base now crumbling from years of neglect and the infiltration of tree roots. Several of the stones bear the signs of haphazard repair efforts; others had fallen over into the underbrush, discovered when Cooper-Wilson and her small group of volunteers began cleaning up the site earlier this year.

“I was livid to see this, any cemetery that’s neglected, because I was raised to (believe) that when you bury your loved ones, that perpetual care was automatic, but it doesn’t work that way,” Cooper-Wilson said. “These people built the community we live on, we’re standing on their backs, and it’s the collective history of our country.”

More than 20 years ago, Cooper-Wilson led the effort to clean up the ; the cemetery contained the remains of a number of her own ancestors who had come to Canada to flee slavery in the States.

But even though she doesn’t share the same personal connection to the Presbyterian cemetery, Cooper-Wilson — who is also a director with the Ontario Historical Society, and chairperson of the OHS’s Cemetery Preservation & Defence Committee — believes those who are buried there deserve the same respect.

“People don’t realize the history that’s here,” said Cooper-Wilson as transport trucks rumble by on nearby Hwy. 26. “It’s an obsession with me.

“My people knew them. They were a community … my dad said everybody (at the time) had to depend on each other, no matter what their feelings were on race,” she said. “There will always be that element, but over time, families united, they had to to survive up here.”

For Cooper, the stones tell the stories of families struggling to establish a life for themselves in “the wild and wonderful world” of pre-Confederation Ontario.

She’s takes water with a little bit of vinegar to try and clean the stones so she can read them, and cross-reference that information with her research. She was able to find documentation from 1974 when the stones were moved to the current orientation, but even then, she said, there wasn’t much information to go on from cemetery records.

Cooper hopes to have the flower beds cleaned out in time for the service on Aug. 18, with the stones set on limestone screenings. However, she acknowledged, the work is limited to the funding that’s available; in 2017, township council established a $5,000 fund to address maintenance and repairs at the inactive cemeteries, of which $2,000 is being used to help with repairs at Old Zion.

There are nine inactive cemeteries in Clearview Township; according to the Ontario Historical Society, there are 1,500 unregistered cemeteries — and therefore have no protection afforded to them under the Cemeteries Protection Act.

“I would like to see stricter legislation. When I began, you took a lot of things for granted — a cemetery is supposed to be sacred, and that’s not the case,” she said.

The inactive cemeteries owned by the township are identified and protected by bylaws that have been approved by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario.

There are too many other priorities “that the taxpayer has entrusted the council with” to be concerned with funding the restoration of a long-disused cemetery, she acknowledged

“There’s a lot of history that will be lost,” she said. “To me, seeing this going go to pot is an insult to these people, it’s an insult to the dead, when you think of what they went through.”