CLINTON >> As Andrew Pighills carefully guided the backhoe to unearth the foundation stones of the 200-year-old stone smokehouse at St. Alexis Orthodox Christian Church, each stone looked like the next.
That is, until he flipped one of the last, and its ornate engraving came to the surface. Up came the top part of an 18th century gravestone, elaborately carved and inscribed with the words:
“In memory of Mr. Robert Carter Who Died Nov. 7 AD 1751 Age 86 years”
“When we looked at the stone, the carving and the lettering were so sharp and so crisp that we knew they was something special, that it had been there, in the ground for probably most of its life,” said Melissa Josefiak, director of the Essex Historical Society and a St. Alexis parishioner, who serves as the church’s historical consultant.
The mystery headstone was excavated as Pighills, a master stone artisan and owner of English Gardens and Landscaping of Killingworth, was dismantling the smokehouse prior to its move earlier this month.
Found when smokehouse moved
The smokehouse stood on the church’s property for 200 years before it was moved and rebuilt across the street on the grounds of the Clinton Historical Society’s “Old Brick” at 103 E. Main St.
And, the facts about the smokehouse shed little light on the origins of the gravestone.
The smokehouse was originally owned by the family of Capt. W. H. Williams, who built the red house at 110 East Main St. circa 1710 and the smokehouse, directly behind it, around 1810, according to Alex Martins, a member of the Red House committee at St. Alexis Church.
When church officials realized they lacked the resources to maintain the smokehouse, they approached the historical society. In two days’ time the skilled mason dismantled the colonial structure, granite slab by granite slab, and transported the pieces across the street.
A surprise for everyone
But, no one was counting on the unexpected appearance of an old gravestone, and one in pristine condition.
“It just looked like an ordinary foundation stone, just like all the other stones I was pulling out with the backhoe,” Pighills said. Then he flipped the stone over, and was greeted with a pleasant surprise.
“It was wonderful,” he said.
“There’s a beautiful pattern that goes all around the edge and right at the top there’s a little angel and everything was just so legible because obviously it’s been buried so long,” he explains. “It hasn’t been worn by the weather. So you could just read everything.
Although nearly half of the gravestone is broken off, it is still a treasure.
“It was just a work of art. It’s a folk art, work of art,” Josefiak added.
Who carved it?
Based on the engraving, Ruth Brown, executive director of The Connecticut Gravestone Network, believes it is the work of Peter Barker.
Brown has been studying gravestones for the last 30 years.
“He’s a carver that came down from Putnam and I call him my traveling carver, because it appeared that for the most part he took his own stones with him” she said.
The Carter gravestone, “is really one of his better examples because he wasn’t known for doing really the best carving in the world,” Brown said.
While the type of stone used and the clarity of the artwork is a departure from the work of Barker, Brown is confident that this is his workmanship.
“It’s his work,” she said. “It’s cut deeper. Most of his work just is not cut deep enough to jump out at you.”
Brown attributed the exceptional carving on the Carter gravestone to the fact that Barker used “a more local sandstone,” which would have allowed him to carve deeper, rather than his usual choice of schist stone.
And, the identity of the gravestone artisan is not carved in stone, in a manner of speaking.
“There’s so much we don’t know about these guys until we dig and dig and dig, and he’s one of the big mysteries.”
And there is a lot of mystery around this stone.
Dig and dig and dig
The how, when, why and where this stone originated is what church officials are trying to figure out now. But it is a project fraught with unknowns. This is not unusual in a case like this, said Brown.
“So many people would think, ‘oh, that was stolen,’ said Brown. “Unfortunately, we find them in use as steps, even as steps in churches.
“For me to find a displaced gravestone, that’s not unusual, but the mystery and the chase of trying to figure out where it came from and how to put it back, that’s the real work,” she added.
The Rev. Steven Hosking of St. Alexis Church was thrilled with the discovery and knew immediately that the church had a responsibility to find out where this stone came from and whether they could return it to its rightful place.
“In the orthodox tradition, after every Easter, we go out and bless gravesites,” explained Hosking.
“So, even though this is not a gravesite itself, it was, at one time, associated with a gravesite, with a burial site. So we want to do what’s right within the orthodox tradition and the tradition of the community, the historic tradition, to find its proper place,” he stressed.
While finding a misplaced gravestone is not a rare occurrence in Connecticut, according to Brown, what is unique is that St. Alexis is “actually reporting it and they actually care about it.”
Brown said that many times these once-hallowed objects are unearthed and tossed aside only to be forgotten.
She applauded the church’s determination to find out about the lineage of the gravestone, but also said that returning it to its rightful spot is nearly impossible.
“I’m 90 percent sure I’ve already figured it out,” said Brown. “The problem is that his burial, if he died in Guilford like the records are telling us, in 1751, the burying ground that he would have been buried in is the old Guilford burying ground.
“It’s the Guilford Green. It’s the town green,” she noted.
Brown said that in early 1800 the town designated a cemetery on the east side of town, Alderbrook Cemetery and one on the west side, Westside Cemetery. At that time the bodies buried on the town green remained there, while the gravestones were moved. But many times the stones did not make it to the cemetery.
Headstones resused often
In Guilford, Brown noted, “A lot of families took the stones back and you also, and God knows how many times we found this, good ‘old Yankee thrift,’ they would use the stones for pathway steps, in foundations, that was quite common,” Brown adds. “They would just reuse the gravestone.
“And then today we find it with a name and a date on it and we go, ‘Uh, oh. Where is that person buried? Did he get a replacement stone or is he someplace where we don’t know where the bodies are anymore?’”
Brown said in this case there may be many unanswered questions.
“You take all the facts that you can gather and you make the best summation that you can make,” she said. “Those early records, most places, it’s a hit or miss.”
Church is custodian of find
There may be some disagreement on the origins of the stone and where the deceased lived and died.
While Brown has traced Carter’s burial back to the Guilford Green, Josefiak said that the records the church has obtained, with assistance of various researchers, indicate that Carter was a shipwright, carpenter and “a person of note” in Clinton.
“We do believe that there were Carters in Clinton going all the way back to its early days as Killingworth,” said Josefiak. “They were one of the first families in town.”
Regardless of how much information St. Alexis Church is able to gather about Robert Carter’s life and death, they are committed to preserving the gravestone for generations to come.
“I think the fact that we’ve become the inadvertent custodian of a historical find is rather exciting,” he said. “It was very surprising to find it under the smokehouse.
“We’ve always been the custodian of the homestead and the smokehouse and it’s always been a concern to maintain it,” he added, “but then to turn and find the headstone as part of the flooring — it’s just an incredible find.”