LINCOLN, Maine — Ellen W. Jipson probably never had much chance to make an impression on the world.
Born July 14, 1899, she died 40 days later. Only a small tombstone, scarcely 20 inches tall and worn almost to illegibility, marks her grave under an evergreen tree on a sloping hill in what appears to be the middle of the West Broadway cemetery. The monument provides no hint about what caused Ellen to leave this world so soon.
“A darling baby lies beneath this little mound,” it reads.
With the inevitable degradation of her tombstone, the location of Ellen’s gravesite might have been lost to history if not for the efforts of a dozen students in teacher Curt Ring’s service learning class at Mattanawcook Academy.
Since school resumed in September, the students have been carefully mapping the names, dates of birth and death, and siting of the cemetery’s several hundred gravestones. Aside from the sharp memory of Hervey Clay of Clay’s Funeral Home of Lincoln, the town has an incomplete record of who is buried where in its cemeteries, said Ron Weatherbee, the town’s cemetery, parks and recreation director.
“We have some that we have no record of. There are others that we have a partial record of,” Weatherbee said Tuesday.
“When somebody calls — a family member or somebody doing a genealogy — right now I can look into the records in our vault,” Weatherbee said. “If there’s something there, then we have a pretty good idea of where [a gravestone] is. If it’s not in the vault and Hervey doesn’t remember, then I need to go out or the person looking actually has to walk the cemetery and look at [the gravestones] one by one.”
The project’s genesis began last year in his senior Contemporary American Issues class, Ring said.
“One of the issues that we started discussing in class was this real disconnect that seems to occur between the local community and the kids in the school,” Ring said. “The kids really felt there was a very negative light cast upon them because of the actions of some teenagers and because of this perception that teenagers are troublemakers.”
“The kids really felt that they wanted to show the adults of the three communities that RSU 67 serves that kids have a lot of value, and they have a lot that they bring to the table,” Ring said.
A visit from Town Manager Lisa Goodwin to the academy, which serves Chester, Lincoln and Mattawamkeag, led to the students taking on the project. Since it began in fall 2009 with 18 students, the South Lincoln and Park Street cemeteries have been mapped, Ring said.
The town cemeteries on Stanhope Mill Road and near the Winn town line will follow when the students finish the West Broadway cemetery, which probably id the town’s largest. Weatherbee had no way of knowing how much money the students are saving the town, but said he imagined the amount would be considerable.
“It would be a good-sized chunk of change,” Weatherbee said.
“Since September they have been to the [West Broadway] cemetery probably 15 times. With 12 kids, that’s about 270 man-hours put in right now, and we’re probably 20 percent done with the main cemetery itself,” he said. “On the Park Street cemetery, it took them most of the year.”
“The arrangement of the gravestones is very scattered, and the older ones are even worse,” said Abbie Priest, 17, of Lincoln.
Many tombstones tell sad stories, yet the students said they found the work productive and illuminating.
“The infant mortality rate [in decades past] was very high. Some of [the tombstones] showed that death had occurred within a few days of birth,” said Darrell Savage, 18, of Lincoln. “It’s pretty sad, but it shows how [crude] medicine was back then.”
Senior Mike Thibodeau, 18, of Lincoln said he hoped that people would get a better impression of MA students from the class’s efforts.
The project is among a half-dozen service learning projects academy students do annually and the approximately 30 that are done by the pupils and students of RSU 67, Ring said.
Service learning projects help the students connect with the community and learn, as with the mapping project, of the needs of municipal governments, said Ring and Henry Pietras, principal at Mattanawcook.
The students will continue the project until snowfall interrupts. It will resume after the April vacation, Ring said.