Cemetery Tour Opens Window into the Past

By Lura Jackson

 

Brynne Lander addresses the crowd as Gladys Hayes, a fifteen-year old that died of tubercular meningitis, during the annual Cemetery Tour held by the St. Croix Historical Society on Sunday, August 7th. (Photo by Lura Jackson).

From the triumphant to the tragic, the city of Calais has borne witness to the stories of many lives. While we will never fully know the extent of what has transpired here, the details that remain provide windows in time, giving us the opportunity to look back and reflect on years long passed. In its effort to connect the living residents of Calais with those who are no longer with us, the St. Croix Historical Society [SCHS] held its annual Cemetery Tour on Sunday, August 7th, featuring eight former Calais citizens.

Each former resident was portrayed by a member of the SCHS, dressed in period attire and located near the appropriate grave. A brief recounting of each life was provided, penned by Jerry LaPointe. As has been the case for each of the past six annual tours, the performances were simultaneously informative, inspiring, saddening, and amusing. 

Being a teacher during any time period can be both rewarding and challenging, but being a teacher during the Civil War was a singular experience in and of itself. William Corthell—played by Al Churchill—shared the account of what it was like to be a teacher at Calais Academy during the 1860s. 

“Many of the young men I taught were lost in the war,” Corthell (Churchill) recalled. “Others came home terribly wounded. It was a sad time. Even though I was still teaching, the city’s mind was only on the war.”

Corthell also became a judge in the area, and it was him that oversaw the case of the Confederates that came to Calais to rob a bank. The robbery was foiled by rumors that had reached the ears of law enforcement in advance. By the time the Confederates came into the bank, all eight of its employees had been deputized and brought pistols to bear. The robbers were swiftly arrested with no injuries but for one deputy who shot themselves in the foot.

With the losses of so many men fresh in the minds of the people of Calais, the townsfolk wanted the men hanged. After all, the Battle of Fredericksburg had just happened, costing five men from Calais their lives in a single night. The men were spared from the death penalty, however.

Corthell developed a teaching theory based on the premise that teachers had to be taught how to teach effectively, a topic he would write extensively on. “You can be the smartest person in the world at the same time as being the worst teacher,” Corthell (Churchill) commented. Corthell would later serve as the state’s first superintendent, overseeing fourteen schools.

Another teacher depicted was Laura Burns, portrayed by Sherry Sivret. Burns’ father believed that “knowledge was the key to opening the door to success” and so he paid for her to go to college during a time when most women did not attain higher degrees. She became a passionate teacher—which Sivret conveyed well—eventually creating three scholarships for local students to attend Dartmouth and Simmons College. Burns also created a fund to pay the medical expenses of the poor and donated her house to be used as lodging for nurses. “Those funds are still providing help to the sick and needy today,” Burns (Sivret) said. 

Not all of the performances featured were of particularly distinguished residents. Among the more touching accounts was that of James Cochran, played by Jerry LaPointe. Despite having one of the largest monuments in the cemetery—fashioned from red granite—millworker James and his wife Mary were very poor. 

The Cochrans lived simple lives in Milltown, doing their best to create a warm, loving home for their children. “We wanted to raise our children to be upright human beings,” Cochran (LaPointe) said. Cochran believed so strongly in the Golden Rule and exemplified it as such that the Calais Advertiser remarked in his obituary. They were a devout attendees of St. Anne’s Church, walking to service each Sunday from Milltown as they did not have a horse and carriage.

When James and Mary passed away, their children wished to honor them. Their sons donated $3,000 to St. Anne’s, which was fifty years old at the time. The funds purchased a new roof, new floor, new pews, and a new altar with a green marble top. A stained glass window was put in and dedicated to James and Mary. “That window is a testament of the love of parents for their children and children for their parents.”

Two of the performances were given by young SCHS members, commemorating the loss of lives barely begun. Brynne Lander played the role of Gladys Hayes, who was fifteen when she died of tubercular meningitis—just six weeks after her sister passed. So great was the loss of two young girls to the family that the Calais Advertiser wrote an article in the family’s honor at the time. 

Shane DelMonaco played the role of Charles Frost, a fifteen-year-old that had quit school to work in the mill when his father no longer could. Frost was the primary source of income for his family until he fell backwards into the icy mill pond, an event that DelMonaco recounted in harrowing detail. 

At least one performance brought welcome levity to the proceedings—Lorraine Mitchell provided a lively recounting of Ina Creamer and her time as the piano player at the Opera House downtown. Creamer played the background music for silent movies, and in her recollections she helped the assembled crowd to understand how beautiful the Opera House was and its role in the community. 

After meeting the 150 or so guests that came to watch the performances, each of the performers said their farewells in preparation of an annual party that no living soul has yet attended. While the tours are given primarily to inform and entertain, it is difficult to leave the cemetery without feeling a sense of gratitude and connection with the residents that were portrayed—as if each of them would say, “Thank you for remembering me.”

 

The videos of each performance will soon be shared to the SCHS Facebook page at www.facebook.com/stcroixhs.