Karen Dattilio's mother once told her about a small family cemetery somewhere behind a corncrib on farmland her great-grandparents had owned in Franklinville.
Snarling dogs deterred Dattilio's first attempt to look for the site, which had long since passed from her family's hands. When she again visited the land in southwestern Carroll County this month, the dogs were tethered, and Dattilio found a young woman, pregnant and due any day, whose family has been renting the ramshackle farmhouse and trailer for about 20 years.
No, the young woman said, there were no cemeteries there. But, as Dattilio got to talking about her work as president of the Carroll County Genealogical Society scouring the county for forgotten family cemeteries, the young woman suddenly fixed on the word "tombstones."
Yes, the woman said, there were a few tombstones out back. Hoping the walk would start the labor of childbirth, she led Dattilio to the foot of a 20-foot cedar stump jutting between the rusted hull of a flatbed truck and an empty, rotting corncrib. Dattilio rubbed the dirt from a smooth slate stone lying flat in the ground that said:
"In memory of Barbarry Porter who departed this life Oct. 21, 1829, aged 23 years 1 mo., 2 days."
Dattilio, 35, was close to tears.
"My great-grandfather's wife was Mary Catherine Porter," she said, and this had to be a relative. After years of finding and cataloging the abandoned graves of other people's ancestors, Dattilio had discovered the grave of a forebear of her own. "Oh my God, I found my ancestor finally at a cemetery," she said.
Another stone marked the memory of Nancy S. Porter, dead in 1822 at age 45. Other stone fragments pieced together marked the grave of yet another Porter -- the first name was obscured -- who died the same year at 6 months of age. Fieldstones around the tree suggested the remains of a boundary.
Dattilio would add this site to the Genealogical Society's records of about 225 known cemeteries in Carroll. About 150 of them are small family plots that the society is trying to protect from the backhoe and the plow.
Through investigations of groves that farmers appear to have plowed around, searches of county records and secretive referrals from county natives who want no harm to come to gravesites they remember playing around as children, the society has steadily built a catalog of cemeteries since 1982.
It has divided the county into seven zones and published volumes on all known plots in two of them. In just those two sections of the county, the society figures 28 of 77 known cemeteries have been lost.
To stem the loss, the society has drafted a bill, sponsored by the county's delegation to the General Assembly, that would require county landowners to record any gravesites on their property in Circuit Court and to give written notice of those sites to any prospective buyer. The society touts the bill as historical preservation of records, written in stone.
Grave markings might be the only clue, for instance, to the existence of a child born in 1862 who died a year later, between the taking of the census every 10 years. There were no birth or death certificates then, said Harold Robertson, who drafted the society's bill.
"The only record on earth of that child might be on that tombstone," he said.
To preserve those records, "practically every county genealogical society in the state is copying cemetery inscriptions as fast as they can go," said Mary K. Meyer, founder of the Genealogical Council of Maryland. But the Carroll society, and Howard County's years earlier, are the only ones she knows that have carried their preservation efforts as far as the General Assembly.
RACE AGAINST CHANGE
Genealogists understand their graveyard research as a race against rapid changes in land use.
Dattilio and her colleagues in the Carroll society can't drive by a telltale clump of cedars on a bare hillock without stopping the car to investigate or at least making a mental note to check land records on the site later.
A hill was the preferred location for a family graveyard. Often the site was planted with long-lived cedars and covered with green periwinkle vines.
Many of the abandoned cemeteries are too overgrown for developers' surveyors to notice, said Bart Mathews of the county Bureau of Development Review, though Dattilio and others in the society believe many developers would prefer not to notice the sites and alter their plans.
By referring to the society's topography maps marked with all known cemetery sites, in addition to checking the developers' surveys, "everyone is much more aware of cemeteries and protecting those," Mathews said.
Evidence of that trend appears in the Rattlesnake Ridge land the town of Hampstead annexed last year for a high-density housing development.
Members of the Richards family, the first settlers of Hampstead, lie there in a brambly clump of trees in a field that can be reached only by parking at the end of a housing development and walking across a cornfield. The site affords a view of Hampstead Elementary School and the land where the new housing development, another school and a Manchester-Hampstead bypass road are all being planned.
Nine generations after Benjamin Richards and his father, Edward Richards, first bought and tilled Hampstead land, starting in 1738, Joan Porterfield, one of their descendants, began campaigning for the preservation of the tombstones of her Richards ancestors. After learning last fall of the pending annexation and development of the property, Porterfield, 52, called town council members and attended planning commission meetings on behalf of the cemetery.
"They're your relatives," she said. "You're talking about real history of this county when you're talking about these people."
The county planning department agreed to add the gravesite to planning documents. And John Riley, the Hampstead town manager and zoning administrator, confirmed that the town was considering taking over the gravesite, but said it would be saved in any event as open space in the development.
"ISN'T ANYTHING HOLY?"
The Genealogical Society is encouraged by that, but is ever on the lookout for surveyors' stakes popping up near abandoned cemeteries. Its vigilance comes from years of watching Carroll, one of the state's most rapidly growing counties, change as fast as they can object.
Dattilio, the society president, who grew up on a hill in Westminster that overlooks a neatly fenced cemetery of the city's first families, photographs her finds because "tomorrow, the cemetery may not be there," she said.
After discovering her long-lost Porter relatives at the foot of the cedar stump, Dattilio drove to a nearby church cemetery, where the church was long gone but the tombstones still stood. Some were her ancestors. Red-flagged stakes had appeared at the cemetery's edge since her last visit.
"Why do people build close to a cemetery," Dattilio cried. "Isn't anything holy any more?" Something big was coming. "Not always does it affect you so much as when you find out it's your relatives," she explained.
Dattilio could get worked up, too, at the grave of Samuel Leatherwood, no relation of hers, "who departed this life May 29th, 1821, age 67 years," whose bones lie under a white pine in a lot between two houses rising up from newly sunk foundations. She quizzed a man there who appeared in brown coveralls, slapping metal builder's squares against his leg. He was the builder, and he disavowed any notion of the gravesite being there until the county found it while performing a well water test.
The builder's stakes were only a few feet from the tombstone and unmarked field stones. The society has yet to determine the size of the cemetery, which prompted speculation about whether some of it extended beneath the new driveway where the builder had parked a big flatbed trailer. Dattilio wondered, "how many people do you suppose are getting smashed right now?"
But at least the visible parts of the cemetery seemed safe, which was more than the Genealogical Society could say to one woman who had written for information about her family history.
The society determined that one of her family cemeteries is now somewhere under a new industrial park subdivided by new roads with names such as "Adam Smith Street" and "Competitive Goals Drive."
It fell to Dattilio to write her back to explain, almost as if she were breaking the news of a death in the family.