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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Knowing How to See: Reclaiming the 298

County Farm Cemetery, Mj Pettengill
The Other Side of the Fence - County Farm Cemetery

The first time I saw the 298, I was struck by a powerful force that I yet to experience. Little did I know that my life would never be the same.

My children and I were following a realtor to look at a farmhouse in Granite. Until that day, I had never heard of Granite. He assured me that the residence wasn’t in Ossipee. I was looking for a home in the area, but I had an aversion to Ossipee for some unknown reason. I hadn’t been there often enough to form a legitimate opinion, but I had done so.

He was wrong. Granite is part of Ossipee, but that’s okay. It all worked out. I am a firm believer in the old saying that nothing happens by accident. From that day on, they—the 298—have shaped my world.

I am presently crafting the fourth book in the Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series. It is the 298 who called out to me. It is the answer to their call and my promise to give voice to the numbered souls that fuel my drive to continue.

I had never seen a cemetery with rows of small numbered gravestones. It was odd that, when facing the site, the numbered stones are on the right side of an old fence that goes straight down the middle. The traditional, public cemetery in use today, is on the left. I concluded that in both life and death, the paupers—feeble, weak, and marginalized members of our society must remain in their appropriate place.

Whether physical, visual or perceived, if possible, there must be a divide. Amongst the general population, there is no room for the socially unacceptable. Another old saying emerges, out of sight, out of mind. Does the fence keep them out?

I understand that we must deal with the undesirable population—those who, at one point in their insignificant lives, were a burden on society. An anonymous grave is the fate of those without financial stability or anyone to claim them. After all, they must be interred. We do the best with what we have to work with.

It is what it is. This practice is common, global, and still in place today. My concern is that there were no records or sign at the site identifying these numbered souls. They didn’t, and in many cases, still do not matter.

After viewing the farmhouse, I drove back to the cemetery and pulled off the road. I struggled to breathe, and my heart pounded. I asked my kids to please go out and look at the graves to make an assessment.

Within moments, they shouted, “They’re numbered!”

I took a deep breath and got out of the car. With each step, I sensed overwhelming pain, grief, and trauma. I wanted to race back to the car and drive away. I could not. I wandered into the eerie silence. The only sound was a single crow watching from above. I did the math and guessed that there may have been approximately 300 gravestones.

I asked myself, What happened here in this eternal imprisonment? Are they orphans? Was it smallpox? Who are they?

Both collectively and as individuals, harsh judgment, shame, fear, and an overall failure of acknowledgment had left these unloved and unappreciated beings behind. They had been systematically crowded out of our memories, abandoned on a barren hillside with signs of their own decay and decomposition dwelling in an aching stillness.

To be left out on such a scale is to choose the dark and shun the light. To bring forth light, the blackness must first be known. It requires courage and determination to walk amongst souls who have been waiting to be unearthed, biding their time in shadows, in plain sight, yet rarely seen.

Reaching into the corners of uncertain blackness, I saw the dimmest light, that of a dying candle. It was enough to almost blind me. Nothing is lost forever if we awaken. What truth was buried there?

With all of these questions swirling about my head, I went home. I couldn’t sleep. Plagued by images of small, numbered stones, I lay awake and wondered if I could even live near a place like that. It inhabited all of me, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t ignore it and go on. I wanted to abandon them, but I could not. I had assumed a guardian role. I would not rest until I found them. Their names, circumstances, and troubled dreams had become my own.

It is my nature, and a cardinal rule, to follow my intuition. As a historian, I was eager and ready to begin my research. When we moved into the beautiful old farmhouse in a place called Granite, the reclamation of lost souls—my life’s work—had begun.

More than one of the record keepers told me that they were paupers from the County Farm. Then the story was that the records burned in a fire. I was urged to give up and go away. My whole heart and soul had been opened in preparation for the search. I didn’t know right away, in my conscious awareness, that I would find them because I know how to see.

I was attending Vermont College, and the timing was perfect for this to be my culminating study. I set out to find the names of the 298 and, along with the social welfare system, explore the nineteenth-century County Farm as an institution.

Once uncovered and harmonized, there can be wholeness.


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