Feature Story

Early Gravestone Carvers
An Interview with Margaret R. “Peggy” Jenks

Anyone who has researched their ancestors in Rutland County, Vermont knows the name Margaret R. “Peggy” Jenks. Peggy has catalogued every person on every gravestone in the 200+ cemeteries in the 27 towns of the county plus Granville, NY, and published these indexed listings in a series of 17 books. Peggy is also an accomplished genealogist, having researched and published books on early families in New England and New York. She chaired the Seattle Genealogical Society's Computer Interest Group from 1982-1986, and was editor of the Newsletter of the Genealogical Society of Vermont from 1996-2005. She joined the Association for Gravestone Studies in 1982, and served six years as trustee. In 2014, Peggy received the Forbes Award, the Association’s highest honor.  This award is bestowed to honor an individual, institution, or organization in recognition of exceptional service and outstanding work in the field of gravestone studies. Peggy has been a long-time member of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association and we caught up with her at the Fall meeting of VOCA.

VOCA: Peggy, when we talked to you in early 2014 (Interview with Margaret R. “Peggy” Jenks), you told us that the marble industry in the eastern part of the Rutland county and the slate industry on the Vermont - New York border, spawned many, many gravestone carvers. When did you become interested in researching these early gravestone carvers? How do you go about identifying the carver of any particular gravestone?

Peggy: My interest in gravestones began in the 1960’s when I decided to trace my husband’s ancestry. His mother’s ancestors were first settlers in Poultney and his father’s were first settlers in Windham County. Fortunately, my father-in-law knew where most of his ancestors were buried and took me to see the stones. My children have 20 direct ancestors buried in Poultney and a total of 95 in Vermont. There may be more if several “brick walls” get knocked down.

My interest in the carvers began soon after joining the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS). One of their goals was to identify the gravestone carvers. This is most easily done when a signature is found on a stone or there is a payment, for the stone, in a probate file for a stone. Unfortunately, there are many payments for stones, but the payee is not named. Through the years as I recorded the stones, I made note on any signed stones. In most cases the carver’s signature is near the base of the stone. Using these signed stones as a guild, his other work may be identified. It may be the design on the tympanum or the way he forms certain letters.

The 1800 stone for Mindwell Grant in East Poultney was signed “EC” in the lower right corner. In the East Poultney, Wells, and Middletown Springs cemeteries there are a number of stones with similar faces. This signature is now below ground level. Some researchers thought “EC” might be Edward Collins, son of Zerubbabel Collins of Shaftsbury.

At that time, the Vermont archives were in Montpelier. Armed with a list of these stones for adult men, I searched the probate files. The file for Zebediah Dewey, died East Poultney 1804, listed a payment to Jonas Clark for $20.50 for gravestones, to digging graves $1.25 (Rutland Co. Probate, Rutland district 5:146) Who was “J. Clark”?

No one in the histories of Wells or Poultney seemed to fit. However, in the Middletown history there was a big family of Clarks. A number with names that started with “E”. Town historian, Mr. Herbert Davison, had supplied a list of those buried in the old Middletown cemetery.

A letter to Mr. Herbert Davison, Middletown Springs historian was the next step. He wrote back that the word "mason" rang a bell and he remembered an old hand written manuscript in the Historical Society: "Genealogy of the Clark Family... 1639-1891" by M. Clark, Feb. 11, 1891 (Note 1). M. Clark was Merritt Clark (1803-1898), son of Jonas, Jr. Merritt Clark placed Enos (1764-1815) and Jonas (1774-1854) as sons of Jonas Clark, Sr. The Canterbury, CT vital records verify this. Merritt Clark wrote "Enos was a stone cutter, some of his work may be seen at the old cemetery in Middletown on grave stones and generally ornamented with the head of a Seraph or weeping willow..."  Merritt Clark was 12 when his Uncle Enos died, so that the statement may be taken as firsthand knowledge.

VOCA: How do you research a carver’s life?

Peggy: As noted above, the very best place to search is in the probate record as the gravestone is a deductible expense. This led me to extract the Rutland County probate records, with the help of Danielle Roberts and Dawn Hance. These extracts are recorded in 5 volumes for the Rutland District and 3 volumes for the Fair Haven District. Unfortunately Fair Haven’s volumes 1 & 2 were lost when the home of William Ward, the first probate judge was burned. Volumes 7, 9, 12-18 are also missing.

Also there are town histories for many of the Vermont towns that may tell about the family of the carvers. Starting with the 1850 census, the occupations were listed. The census indexing on Ancestry contains too many miss reading of the names. Several times when searching for a carver in say Rutland, I had to search for say all “Henry’s”. Then look at any with a similar surname of the right age. Some of the problem may be in the census takers writing.

VOCA: Can you describe how an early gravestone carver conducted his business? Did he have a shop? What tools did he use? Where did he get his stone to carve? What did he charge? Is this the only work he did?

Peggy: Unfortunately, I have not found any early Vermont carver shop records. Many AGS publications have reported on shops and tools used by the early New England carvers. I always wonder how they managed to quarry out such large pieces of marble or slate, haul them to their work area, and do such beautiful work with only hand tools. The stone was polished with another piece of the same stone and wet sand. The chisels needed frequent sharpening, so a blacksmith was needed nearby. There were lettering books to copy. Most had to farm to feed their families. The carving could be done evenings and in winter. Several quarry owners also carved gravestones.

The carver I have been most interested in through the years is Enos Clark of Middletown Springs. According to the town history, Enos with his twin Theopholus, arrived in Middletown Springs near 1788 to prepare the way for their parents. No record has been found as to where Enos learned to carve. There are several stones dated before 1790 that are, no doubt, back dated. In researching the Clark ancestry, I found a great uncle – living in Shaftsbury, Vermont before 1790. His home was across the road from Zerubbabel Collins who’s family was from Columbia, CT, not far from Canterbury, where Enos was born. My theory is that Enos was an apprentice of Zerubbabel Collins. Zerubbabel, son of Benjamin Collins, a CT gravestone carver, had carved a number of stones in CT. before moving to Shaftsbury. I believe Enos learned from Collins as there are some similarities to their work and lettering. Enos, came to Middletown getting things ready for his parents, then returned to CT to marry in Nov. 1790 Clarissa Cook. They were in the Middletown 1791 census. Many of the early stones carved by Enos Clark are of the same very hard white marble from the Shaftsbury quarry on Collins land.

I believe Marcus Stoddard, ca 1790-1857, and David Mehurin, ca 1786-1857, were apprentices to Enos Clark, 1765-1815. They did take over Enos Clark’s quarry after he died. Their work, while quite different than the work of Enos, is neat and attractive. A third younger man, Josiah Caswell, 1801-1882, probably also learned to carve in Middletown. In 1850 he was a “engraver” in Danby where his son had a marble business. There are a number of Caswell family stones in Middletown Springs that may be samples of his work.

The most interesting and elusive carver in Middletown Sprigs was the man who signed a stone “V.,W.” There is a second child’s stone in the old Hartford, NY cemetery with this same signature. This one is interesting in that the date on the stone is 100 years to recent, while the foot stone is correct, based on 2 more adjacent stones of the same parents. There are 2 other adult stones in this cemetery signed “W. Vaughn, danby.” There are a number of stones in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Danby by an expert carver who did not know when to use capital letters such as “AnnY davis”; “Mary davis” and Rebeekah davis”. Is “V., W.”, and W. [Wm.] Vaughn the same man who spent time in Middletown where he polished his skill and education?

Enos Clark was called a “mason” in early records. By the 1850 census, most of the other area carvers are listed as farmers. Carving appears to be a side line, probably done in the winter when there was less farm work.

VOCA: In most every cemetery in Vermont we see these early gravestones, and the carvings are remarkable. We see religious depictions, flora, fauna, worldly symbols, secret societies, organizations, and the human condition.  This gravestone art is every bit as genius as paintings and sculpture.  How did this come to be? How did these carvers become so accomplished?

Peggy: In early New England the only form of art allowed was on the gravestones. Many women and children could not read the inscription, so the wonderful art told a story of a short life on earth and a wonderful life in heaven.

VOCA: We have read that the Death’s Head was a common headstone symbol into the early 1800’s in New England, and with the emergence of rural and Victorian cemeteries, such imagery was softened in favor of winged cherubs, weeping willows and urns.  Have you found these same patterns in the individual carvers that you have researched?

Peggy: In the old cemetery in Bennington and Bennington County, there are numerous stones with the winged cherubs. They were not as popular by the time Rutland County was settled. By that time the weeping willows and urns had become popular. Today, there are several experts, including two women, carving beautiful “one-of-a kind” stones.

VOCA: Do you have a favorite carver? Please tell us about the carver, what you know of his life, and examples of his work.

Peggy: I guess Enos Clark has been my special carver from the start of this study. The carver I call “Mirror Man” has been the most frustrating to identify. There are 7 adult stones with very round pleasant faces in a round frame that has a handle. It’s like they are looking at themselves in a mirror. These stones are for 2 adult male, one in Castleton, one in Benson,  a widow in Pleasant St. Rutland, and 3 young widows in Benson. Also 3 of their daughters in Benson with a simpler image. There is no surviving probate for any these stones.

VOCA: Where is the most intricately carved gravestone that you have seen? Where is the most beautiful?  Which cemetery stands out as a carvers’ masterpiece?

Peggy: Probably the most beautiful stones in Vermont are found in the old Bennington Cemetery. Some represent the work of MA carvers. Most of them are of marble. To me, the other most interesting cemeteries include the old Rockingham Cemetery with its many slate face stones by a group called the “Rockingham Carvers”; Shaftsbury and Arlington with many Collins stones.

However, none of these compare with the old cemeteries eastern New England: Boston, Charlestown, Providence, Portland, Hartford to name a few.

VOCA: You have been cataloging these carvers since the 1980s, along with all your other activities. How many carvers have you identified? In what form do you have the information?  How do you intend to convey this information to a broader (and eager) audience?

Peggy: I have a list of over 150 who signed stones or have been otherwise identified. Some of the more recent were agents for various companies. The first list is by name, the second by town and a third by date. Each carver has his own file that includes all data found and pictures if his work. These files are in 5 thick notebooks in alphabetical order. Each carver has his own file on my computer. As the years have gone by, I have realized I will never be able to properly publish all of this material. The Rutland Historical Society has agreed to take my notebooks and the data is now available to all other researchers. It is my hope more will be published from my research.

VOCA: As always, what words of wisdom do you have for your fans and all cemetery-philes?

Peggy: While the data on the stones is in public domain, the way I have presented it in my books is under copyright. When adding data to Find-a-Grave, and you have seen the stone, it’s yours to add. However, taking the data from my books and not giving me credit is a copyright violation. What is missing in these Find-a-Grave listings, and found in my books, are the stones for nearby relatives such as the wife’s parents, a daughter and her husband’s stones or other relatives.

When asked how I could have recorded so many stones, my simple reply is: “One Stone at a Time.”

Peggy Jenks has her own web site at http://www.cemeterybooks.com.

Note 1: Merritt Clark's Manuscript Genealogy: Valuable, but not a Completely Reliable Source, by Margaret R. Jenks, Vermont Genealogy, Vol. 1 No. 2: April 1996, Genealogical Society of Vermont