Heritage: Efforts to document private cemeteries continue in Virginia Beach

Barbara Henley, a member of the Virginia Beach City Council and a farmer, watches farmer John Cromwell try to locate a grave marker at his farm in Sigma. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

SIGMA — On a February Sunday afternoon, Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District on the Virginia Beach City Council, traveled to the Cromwell family’s farm to examine a small, historic private graveyard near the remains of last year’s field corn.

She carried books, a brush and shaving cream – the latter a trick to make letters and numbers easier to read on old markers. 

Henley checked each stone, comparing it to records. It’s all part of an effort by volunteers, including members of the research group at the Senior Resource Center, Inc., to build upon data gathered by Dean and Sally Carroll of Knotts Island, N.C. 

For more than a year, people have visited sites, checking and gathering information of genealogical and historic value. Henley has called trips the work of “grave hunters,” a title picked by one of her grandchildren named Hunter.

Efforts to do this have to overcome broken or buried stones, growth, and, as the weather warms up more and more, critters. 

“We really have to do this in the field this time of year,” she said.

Henley was with John and Betsy Cromwell of Cromwell’s Produce, and their dog. To find one stone, John Cromwell pressed a rod to the ground.

“Here it is,” he said, after a moment.

The marker was for Sarah Smith, who was born in 1801 and died in 1874.

“She was old,” Cromwell said.

“No, she wasn’t,” Henley said, smiling. “She was only 73, John.”

“For that day,” he said.

Henley said she hopes they will be able to publish something soon. That publication may lead to another book of stories. Sixty to 70 private graveyards have been verified. There are perhaps 175 more to go.

The effort can always use volunteers, as well as information about where graves may be located and permission from landowners to access them.

Cromwell and Henley examine a historic gravestone at the Cromwell farm in Sigma. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

Reach Henley for information or to get involved at (757) 426-7501.

© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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