What's Under Your Back Porch?

20 Jun 2017 6:11 AM | Debi Curry (Administrator)

by Will Wootton

image of Horace Nelson Powell's gravestoneThe College* has been rebuilding its simple, elegant but rickety porches at a steady clip for a number of years. The front porch of North House was rebuilt in the nick of time last summer. This summer the front porch of Kane Hall and the narrow, old back porch of North House got the same treatment. They are a sideshow to the huge renovation going on at Hamilton and Jefferson. No costly, mind-boggling code issues on porches; no permits, no real deadlines. The work is being done by crews from the St. Johnsbury correctional facility, supervised teams who do construction jobs for Northeast Kingdom non-profits. These teams have been the College's painters and carpenters for four years now, saving the College lots of money and earning a day off a sentence for each day of work, as well as some pay.

On June 21, with the rotted North House back porch ripped out and its roof propped up with 2 X IOS, one man's shovel hit a stone that turned into a story about a child without record, who died almost exactly 185 years ago, and about the broken gravestone that the work crew pried up and laid out on the lawn.

Twelve inches wide and 23 high, chipped, scraped, in three pieces with a lower corner missing, stained with age, and of a mildly elaborate but not perfectly executed font, the soapstone marker reads:  

Horace Nelson  
Son of Francis  
K. & Mary C.  
Powell, died  
Sept 8th 1826,  
Aged 10 months  

No pain nor sorrow shall molest 
Sleep on sweet babe securely rest  

Cleaned of dirt and mud, Horace Nelson's stone took a position in the President's office in Mager Hall, on the corner of the table where everyone could get a good look at it.

Especially Dave Linck, who is as close to being Craftsbury's official historian as the village is likely to get. "Oh, yes. Very nice," He said upon seeing the marker. "But who? Who exactly is this?" That rhetorical question was followed by a not too brief description of various Nelsons and Powells, including one who apparently "accidentally" shot his wife while cleaning his pistol in 1875.

Micki Martin devoted herself to transcribing the epitaph, some letters almost entirely obscured, and comparing the couplet to similar ones from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. And Farley Brown, after joining Dave Linck and others in another round of story making over the stone, headed down to the Town Clerk's office to see if any records of North House or of the Common circa 1826 mentioned Horace Nelson Powell, age 10 months. Dave Linck chose to re-examine a few Craftsbury graveyards.

In the meantime, something else turned up. Bones. One deer leg bone (everyone agreed) and two funny looking bones, thin walled, five inches long, almost fluted in shape, and with their internal bony filament partially intact.

Is this a graveyard? Is the back of North House an early 19th Century boneyard? If it were, what then? Would the state anthropologist halt the rebuilding of the porch and initiate a real dig? How great would that be? There was already a blue rain tarp over the site, giving it a certain air of protection and importance. And there was much interest in probing the next layer down, which appeared to be a circular brick structure, capped with a slab of slate, and apparently once connected to North House cellar by a length of lead pipe.

It was curious, too, that the known history of North House includes three generations of morticians, beginning with James Wellington Stevens (d. 1870), then his son Henry, followed by a nephew, Henry Clapp, whose family owned the house until 1968 when it was sold to Sterling School. 

It happens that the current resident of North House is a direct  descendent  of patriarch Roger Clapp, of the 17th Century Clapp family of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and whose gravestone is secure in the King's Chapel cemetery in Boston. In any case, by the next morning the circular brick structure turned out to be an old backyard grey water sink, made with relatively modern brick (Drury brand), with some old slate holding it together, and filled now with dirt and mud.

The headstone itself was receiving a steady flow of curious community members from inside and outside the College. In most cases, this happened: First they would read the words and then touch them— such an engraved object, laid out, seemed to compel people to lay down their hands flat on it—then everything would stop for just a  moment, snagged  on Aged 10 Months.

The more we  looked , the more details emerged to be incorporated into the stories and speculations we all assigned to the stone, precisely because there was so little hard information behind such a compelling artifact and message. For instance, the sweet couplet was apparently a significant challenge for the engraver: three of the 12 words resisted fitting into the text space, so the engraver added an editorial caret in one case, just like a newspaper editor would, placing the missing letter above the word. Then he or she used a hyphen to complete two other words then ran out of space. Like this: 

Sleep on sweet  babe securely re-st
No pain nor sorrow shall mo-Lest

There are other anomalies: The first two lines—Horace Nelson/Son of Francis—are slightly off-kilter, as if the engraver forgot to start each letter on the line. And the top of the stone, where a few decorative elements appear, has been removed, sawn off by the appearance of the marks. One guess is three-quarters of an inch are missing, that would have made the entire stone exactly 12 X 24 inches.

What do these clues mean? Was this the engraver's first stone, and he made so many errors it was angrily rejected and tossed aside? Or perhaps it was the father who tried to engrave the stone, inexpertly and while grieving, and it was unusable. Maybe an illiterate engraver was following the script of another illiterate person, and then someone came along and corrected him and he inserted the correct letters.  

Everyone made up a story, or at least a story fragment, like the stone itself. It seemed as important as touching the stone, closing some loop in how we think about children and death and times so remote as to be hardly imaginable even with the aid of found objects.

But even if every story is as legitimate as the next one, if the stone was rejected, where's its replacement? Where is the child buried? Not in any of the nearby cemeteries, said Dave Linck. He knows of a child's headstone down in the village set all by itself in a backyard. And he knows of two children whose deaths are reported in town records, but whose burial sites are lost. It would have helped had Dave Linck been able to find Horace Nelson Powell's parents or grandparents. Instead, in the cemetery on Cemetery Road, Dave identified a person he believes was the child's younger brother, born in 1828 and who lived a long life and was buried in 1905. It was this man who shot his wife.  

Then, after comparing the bones discovered near the headstone to the articulated human skeleton owned by Craftsbury Academy, and after consulting with his anthropologist brother, Dave reported that these were not human bones. No one was disappointed at this news.

Still and all, none of this explains or even suggests an idea of how the stone came to be buried under the North House porch. The workers who uncovered the pieces reported the largest piece, practically the entire stone that would have stood above ground, was about four feet from the back door, buried a foot or 18 inches deep, engraved side down, and at a slight pitch, maybe 10 degrees. 

Farley Brown discovered nothing in the town records of a Horace Nelson Powell, or of a child's death in early fall of 1826. Exactly when North House was built is not clear, but Farley's examination of village documents indicated that the current structure was there by 1850, and that there was certainly some kind of structure on that site as early as 1825, and it could have been the current building, or not. When the back porch was added is also not known, nor is there any evidence indicating whether the porch just rebuilt was original or just one of many over the years.

Dave Rowell, a local real estate broker, justice of the peace, and live radio performer for 15 minutes a day with the WDEV Radio Rangers, tells one story that may shed light on how the stone came to lie under the North House porch, or at least how  gravestones  sometimes wander.

Dave Rowell's sister, Margaret, had for years owned the upper half of Samuel Crafts' headstone. The son of Ebenezer Crafts, considered the town's founder, Samuel became an early governor of Vermont. He died in 1853 at age 85; his wife Eunice in 1828; and their son Samuel was born... but the break in the stone occurs there. Town records and history account for the child, however.

During a long drought around 1998, Margaret Rowell wanted to find a new spring above her cabin - the old Spaulding property just up the hill from Craftsbury village. Competing  dousers  identified two spots; the first didn't work out. The second did, sort of. "After a bit of digging," Margaret said, "he found the actual headstone of Samuel and Eunice Crafts. It was in remarkable shape, but broken off at the bottom."

Some years later, Dave and Margaret were talking about how her half gravestone was white marble when they noticed they were standing on top of a piece of white marble in the dooryard. It had been there for many years, part of a stone walkway. Dave flipped it over and it turned out to be the missing portion of the Crafts stone, which is four or five times larger than the baby Powell's stone. The Crafts marble monument (C. 1905) sits in the main cemetery on the Common. The speculation is the more formal and elaborate monument replaced the original stone, and it found itself on the Spaulding property in pieces that may have been apart for 100 years or more.

But for our stone one story really is as good as another. Take your pick. To me, at North House with its new porches front and back, covering up for generations whatever else might lie buried under them, there is meaning in  discovering  a life long disappeared and unimagined. No paper work. No memory. No family bible hinting at this short-lived pioneer. Just an ill-carved stone, misused, dug up, displayed, but testimony, still, to a life returned to place and to imagination. 

* Reprinted with permission from the fall/winter 2011 issue of CommonVoice, a publication of Sterling College, Craftsbury Common, VT.

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