About 20 years ago, Maureen and Bill Norton were looking at oysters in a tidal creek off of the Potomac River in southern St. Mary's County. Maureen started walking through the nearby woods and came across an iron fence surrounding a small plot of headstones among the ivy and the trees.
In the ensuing years, the vegetation has continued to grow over the cemetery, some headstones have fallen over as well as part of the fence. The ornate gate of the iron fence has gone missing.
Called the Hencoop cemetery, there are five generations of three families buried there. The land became part of Point Lookout State Park when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bought 444 acres around Cornfield Harbor Road in 1992.
Maureen Norton lives at the end of Cornfield Harbor Road, and reached out to state offices this summer to see if an agency would be willing to clean up the cemetery and maintain it. She hasn't heard a response yet from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“Why doesn't the state get off its duff and do something?” she asked Scott Lawrence this week.
Lawrence, of the historic cemetery research firm Grave Concerns, produced a report on the Hencoop cemetery in 2006 and provided it to the Maryland Historical Trust and Department of Natural Resources.
“I think the biggest issue is: hands off,” Lawrence told Norton this week on a visit to the cemetery.
Cleaning up cemeteries costs money, requires professional supervision and security, Rob Gibbs, member of the St. Mary's County Historic Preservation Commission, said this week.
“They don't want to get trapped into it,” he said.
There are about 200 cemeteries in St. Mary's County, he said, with the majority of them on private property.
There are a handful that are on state-owned properties in the county, he said. There are two small cemeteries at St. Mary's River State Park, two small cemeteries at St. Mary's College of Maryland, other family cemeteries at Point Lookout State Park and a large unmarked graveyard at the reconstructed chapel at Historic St. Mary's City.
Upon a visit to the Hencoop cemetery this week, the group of visitors noticed the gate to the iron fence enclosure has disappeared and a fallen obelisk has been since put back up.
“Somebody's been out here,” Lawrence said.
According to state law, “it's illegal to remove vegetation and cultural resources — to disturb them,” Gibbs said.
“Nature will destroy it. That's what you see happening now,” Bill Norton said, though the deer have been doing their part to keep the cemetery somewhat clean.
Groundhogs have also made the ground uneven, putting the headstones at odd angles that puts pressure on them, making them easier to break, Lawrence said.
“It's just a shame. It breaks your heart,” Maureen Norton said in seeing the condition of the graveyard now. “We can't let this keep going into disrepair.”
“This place could be cleaned up in two days by a goat farmer,” Bill Norton said, if the state granted permission to bring one in.
In the spring of 1995, students from Great Mills High School cleared vines and brush from the cemetery and a photo of them working was published in The Enterprise. “Park rangers discovered the cemetery on the park's recently acquired property,” the photo's caption in the April 7 edition said.
In his work, Lawrence documented 20 headstones at the Hencoop cemetery from members of the Langley, Biscoe and Dunbar families with the oldest headstone dating back to 1795 and the most recent dating to 1898.
“The Langley and Biscoe families appear to have enjoyed a certain economic wealth,” Lawrence wrote in his 2006 report of the cemetery. “The ability to purchase and have inscribed tombstones delivered from Baltimore and other areas was not the norm as many of the poorer families resorted to burials marked only with wood or, in some cases, not marked at all. The addition of the wrought iron fence enclosure is further evidence of not only the wealth of the families, but the love and respect those left behind had for the dead.”
Lawrence said the iron fence probably went up sometime after 1880.
In his report, Lawrence advised that a long-term maintenance plan should be developed for the cemetery for the perpetual care of the site, by either state, county or private funding.
In an Aug. 28 email, Elizabeth Hughes of the Maryland Historical Trust told Maureen Norton that excavating and resetting stones should be put off until the vegetation is removed and a complete inventory of the cemetery can be made.
The Maryland Historical Trust “is not currently, and would not be in the future, responsible for maintaining the cemetery following its restoration. Our concerns are solely related to the potential for adverse impacts to the cemetery resulting from insufficient investment in its restoration,” Hughes wrote.
The Maryland Park Service, through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said on Thursday, "The Maryland Park Service is open to working with interested community members to discuss an effort to clear overgrown vegetation from the cemetery. Because of the property's historic nature, any work would be done in consultation with the Maryland Historic Trust."
In addition, "Maryland state law related to vandalizing cemeteries applies to all locations including state-owned land, and the Maryland Natural Resources Police would enforce appropriately," said Gregg Bortz, DNR spokesman. "The maximum penalty is five years imprisonment and/or a $10,000 fine, as well as restitution for any damage."