Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boot Hill Cemetery

Even if you HAD ever heard of Elkton, Maryland, it was probably for just one thing – the no-fault divorce. While Las Vegas gets all the publicity for such things, in little Elkton, you can get a non-resident divorce, whether or not both spouses agree! If you don’t find yourself in Elkon for some very specific reason, it’s very likely that you’re very simply, lost! I’m referring to an area about ninety miles northeast of Washington D.C., about where the Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland cultures collide. I like to think of this vicinity as an extension of the Brandywine area, quite dark and spooky, with all the houses looking like they were painted by Andrew Wyeth.

So I was in Elkon last week, not for a divorce, but to do some cemetery photography. Elkton has a small town center, which radiates out into serious farmland. I’m talking cows here. Of all the cemeteries I mapped out to visit, I had hoped the one named “Boot Hill Cemetery” would be most interesting. While it shares its name of course with the much more famous Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona, in its own way, it did not disappoint.
Boot Hill Cemetery is not the easiest thing to find. Of course, printed-out scraps of paper from Google Maps lying all over the seat of my car may not have been the best plan (my wife keeps insisting on a GPS). Feeling that I must be within spitting distance of the cemetery, I pulled up to a group of good ol’ boys to ask directions (I’m not above that, especially at dusk). They pointed and said, “Right up the hill.” Huh, so Boot Hill Cemetery is actually on a hill. I turned around in the driveway across the street (with the “Parking for Dale Earnhardt Fans Only” sign nailed above the garage) and headed up yonder.

Boot Hill is a rural churchyard cemetery - the small wooden church you see at top of this article (and at the top of the hill) was established in 1858, which appears to be around the date of the oldest graves here. On the church side of the road, the cemetery is rather new  – with the oldest graves from the early 1900s. There was a couple standing on the grounds when I pulled my car in, but they left quickly. I saw no other people during my visit. Though I did find this interesting epitaph here, the much more interesting area for me was the opposite side of the road. There, the older graves ranged from the 1850’s to maybe 1945 − a beautiful little place. Like so many other small rural graveyards I found in the area, the gates do not lock. This, fellow cemetery travelers, is always a pleasant find. 

Right at the entrance, I was surprised to find three zinc (or white bronze) memorials in a row! My personal best, as a tombstone hunter. Once in a while you'll find one or two of these in an entire cemetery, but three together was an unusual find in this geographic area. (Read more about White Bronze Memorials.)

At the base of the zinc monument in the foreground was the imprint you see below. The Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport CT had an interesting history, which you can read about in my blog link just mentioned. They created all the zinc memorials you see throughout the United States! Yep, they all came from one place. Which is why they all basically look the same. While you could choose from among a variety of funerary symbolism and have custom name imprints made, the structures are basically the same. Which is different from stone carvings you find in cemeteries.

In one of the photos above, you see the words "W. McDevitt, Elkton," engraved in the lower corner of a white marble headstone. Unlike white bronze memorials which were shipped all over the country (between 1870 and 1912), stone carvings are rather unique to the vicinity of the graveyard itself. This is pretty much the case all over. Stone is just way too heavy and fragile to ship. It also explains the great variations in stone type, sculpting and engraving styles, headstone shapes and sizes, even fonts, from one geographic region to another. You tend to see the same style headstones in cemeteries in the same geographic region. Travel fifty miles in either direction, and you're bound to start seeing differences!

Dynasty plot, with headstones engraved on walls
I roamed Boot Hill Cemetery for nearly an hour, making photographs, taking in the ambiance. Quiet. Peaceful. Like the church mice that live in the old building across the street. Lichens grew on the old marble headstones, and on the fifty-year-old seashells bordering some of the burial plots. Why do so many people put seashells on the graves of their loved ones?

Down near the wood line, there was a big old busted wooden pumpkin crate filled with old plywood and broken headstones. What was to become of them? With that to contemplate, I exited Boot Hill Cemetery and drove off into the sunset.

Lichen-covered marble headstone at Boot Hill Cemetery

Further Reading:
White Bronze Memorials blog by Ed Snyder