East of Mabbetsville center, outside of Millbrook, NY, hidden in the woods, is the small White Family cemetery. Centuries ago, families buried their dead in the backyard, or at least in the back 40. Many of these family burial grounds have been swallowed up by brush and bramble as farms failed and families moved away, leaving the care of their dead to strangers.
This was the case with the White Family cemetery. Then, 200 years or so later, two New Yorkers bought what remained of the house and farm. Over the years the property had been a Christmas tree farm, and what land wasn’t being used to grow evergreens returned to the wild. The deed shows a little square marking the burial ground, but all that remained were the remnants of a stone wall and a few broken stones covered with brush.
After the new owners, Michael Bassett, and interior designer Darren Henault, finished restoring the house, they turned their attention to the land. Their caretaker, Roberto Lopez, was to restore the stone wall around the White family plot. The instructions were simple: Rebuild the wall, clear the brush, and reset the stones exactly where they were found. Henault instructed him, “Don’t move anything. Just prop it up.”
“I want happy ghosts, not pissed off ghosts. I had a terror of the whole poltergeist thing coming to life.”
As with most home renovation projects it got bigger and more complicated. The perimeters of the cemetery were bigger than suspected. Henault says, “I was doubtful. It was a family cemetery — how many people could be in it?” He soon discovered he had unearthed a history of the area.
Gravestones give a brief account of someone’s life. But a family cemetery tells us more; It can be a document of the times.
Lopez uncovered more than 28 gravestones. The oldest one is from 1806. The most recent is dated 1893. The early stones are very simple. The oldest gravestone is just a slab of slate etched by hand. The inscription reads:
R Whit dyed march 23 1806 Aged 78 years and
2 months and 22 days
By 1820 the stones indicate the family of farmers had money to spare for honoring their dead. The gravestones are made from granite and are embellished with the image of an urn with a willow tree and later an urn with two willow trees. Some of the women’s stones have a circle of flowers adorning the top.
Most of the stones are for women and children. There are many little stones — all infants. That is consistent with a high mortality rate during childbirth, for both mother and child. The inscriptions note the initials and how many days they lived. One stone reads:
An infant son Of Allen & Cornelia Hurd
Died July 24th AD 1893
More than likely, many of the young women died in childbirth:
Esther wife of Robert Van Wike June 1825
Aged 21 years 11 months &10 days
Cornelia died at age 30. Emeline was 22 years old. Melvina,19, was still a teenager. Of course that is just speculation. The public record is slight with details.
In “A History of the Town of Washington and Millbrook” by Carmine Di Arpino, the year 1816 is noted for its bone-chilling cold. “Some people remembered it as the year without summer, or, as an upstate farmer put it ‘eighteen hundred froze to death’.” Does that account for some of the gravestones?
Another cause of premature death in the area was the notorious Mabbettsville tavern. It was credited with “blighting and destroying the lives of many young men.”
In a “History of Dutchess County” by Frank Hasbrouck, this scholar reports the number at more than 300, though during what period of time, the book does not say.
It is unlikely, however, that any of them were Whites.
Farming in the 19th century did not leave a lot of time for carousing.
But regardless of the cause of their demise, with the restoration of their final resting place complete, Henault can probably rest assured that the spirits of the White Family cemetery are happy indeed.