As cars drive by the Brunswick Bowling Alley along the Pawtucket Boulevard in Lowell, very few, if any, are aware that they are passing by one of the earliest vestiges of Dracut history. Located between the bowling alley and Varnum Avenue is an abandoned, wooded lot. However, this is unlike other lots along the Boulevard. Here some of Dracut’s earliest and most prominent citizens lay interred. This is the site of the Claypit Cemetery.
Claypit is Dracut’s oldest cemetery. The area in which Claypit is located was once part of Dracut. The area today is called Pawtucketville and it was part of Dracut until it was annexed by the city Lowell in 1874.i After the annexation of Pawtucketville, the town of Dracut retained title to the cemetery. Over the years, Claypit has gone by other names such as the Old Burying Ground and the Pierce/Coburn Cemetery.
Surprisingly, for such an important historical site in town history, the cemetery has been neglected for most of the last 130 years. As early as 1880, there is evidence that Claypit was already falling into neglect and disrepair. The remains of Rev. Thomas Parker were moved to Woodbine Cemetery on West Meadow Road due to the poor conditions at Claypit. Rev. Parker had been buried there in 1765 and was moved in 1880.ii
It is unclear as to the reason for the neglect of Claypit at such an early date. No source has been discovered that would provide any clues as to why the earliest burial site in Dracut was already falling into disrepair by 1880. There is also no indication as to why Parker would be moved to Woodbine rather than care for, and preserve, his original resting place at Claypit. However, it could be conjectured that perhaps Woodbine was thought to be a more worthy internment site for the minister. Several renowned Dracut citizens are interred at Woodbine among them being Colonel Louis Ansart.
Claypit evidently continued to be neglected. In 1904, P. Hildreth Parker visited the site and compiled a list of the epitaphs she found on the headstones. According to the epitaphs she recorded in her journal, there were seventeen still remaining. If there had been others we do not know. This appears to be the earliest recording of the headstones found at Claypit.iii
In 1922, Silas R. Coburn published The History of Dracut. He provides a rather cursory description of the site. He writes that “some family” has a plot with posts and chains and that the cemetery itself has no protective fencing along its borders. This was most likely the Pierce lot. Also, he writes that there was a cart path that led from Varnum Avenue down to cemetery. Today, that would be the public way that provides access to the site from Varnum Avenue. He also states that there were no old headstones found there. There would have been a headstone dating from 1789 still to be found at Claypit in 1922 the year of The History of Dracut’s publication. However, Coburn clarifies as to why he believes there were no first or second generation headstones to be found. His explanation is that it would be very probable that the earliest Dracut settlers either had unmarked graves or had wooden markers which would have long since vanished.iv
After the publication of The History of Dracut in 1922, several years passed before any interest was again taken in Claypit. This time it was by the Elks who were, and still are, located at 40 Old Ferry Road which is just west of the cemetery. Old Ferry Road is one of the area’s first roads. The Dracut Historical Society has notes, taken by someone associated with the Elks, about the location and condition of the site in 1939. On April 5, 1939, an inventory of the headstones was taken and there were only twelve headstones remaining and of those twelve only six had names.v There does not appear to be any attempt though to restore or preserve the site in 1939. There was simply an inventory taken and some other notes about ownership.
Once again, several years passed before there appears to be any interest in the cemetery. Interest in the site was again only manifested in the chronicling of the headstones still remaining. In 1953, it was the Lowell Historical Society that stated there were only 11 headstones.vi
On May 4, 1961 there appeared in The Lowell Sun a local history column authored by Arthur W. Coburn. His topic for this particular column was the Claypit cemetery. Unfortunately, he does not provide a contemporary description of the site and apparently based much of his information on Coburn’s The History of Dracut. However, it can be surmised that the site was in poor condition and overgrown with brush because he describes it as ‘abandoned.’
It was not until 1981-1982, that a serious effort was afoot to restore and preserve Dracut’s oldest burying ground. The effort to restore the site was spurred by Dracut High teacher, Donat Paquet, when he began researching his book, The Photographic History of Dracut. When Paquet and his assistant, photographer Peter Bell, first went to Claypit to photograph it for the book, they describe the site as a “real jungle” and that it took two hours for them to clear an area in order to simply photograph two headstones. The “real jungle” was so thick, according to Paquet, that Bell needed a flash so the pictures would come out clearly. Besides the brush and growth, they did manage to find some granite posts, a few intact headstones, and several broken headstones.vii The condition of Claypit evidently bothered Paquet because the following year he and six seniors from Dracut High School returned to the site and cleared out the brush and debris. They salvaged some rusted chains from the Pierce plot.viii
After Paquet’s efforts, another ten years passed before any serious interest was shown in Claypit. In 1992, the Pawtucketville Historical Society’s Alan Manoian began an effort to learn the site’s history and educate the neighborhood of its historical importance. This resurgence in interest in Claypit was due to a serious act of vandalism by some teenagers in December 1991. Apparently, they thought there was a possibility of finding some artifacts of value and opened Aaron Coburn’s grave. According to Manoian , the Society had known about Claypit for years but intentionally left it alone so not to attract attention to it. They were trying to avoid vandalism to the site.ix Apparently, this plan failed since it was indeed vandalized in December 1991.
Claypit at this time was overgrown once again and there was much debris in the area. This debris included car axles. There were less than twelve headstones left and with the help of the Dracut Cemetery Department the site was cleared up.x However, after the cleanup of the site, Claypit was, like so many times before, left alone. No provisions were made to maintain the site.
The story of this mostly forgotten cemetery does not end in 1992. The story continues beginning in September 2004. However, this chapter of the story begins in a most unlikely way. It begins with my hiring to teach 8th grade social studies at Lakeview Junior High School in Dracut in September 2004. While working with the students in the Library one day, I began speaking with the then school librarian, Mary Lou Maguire. Somehow we got on the topic of local history and she gave me the name and phone number of Bud Paquin at the Dracut Historical Society.
I contacted Bud and he was gracious enough to give both myself and Mrs. Maguire a tour of the Museum which happens to be right next to the school complex on Lakeview Avenue. He offered to come speak to the students someday at the school. I told him I’d be in touch.
Several months passed and I did indeed invite Bud to come speak to some kids after school about historic homes around Dracut. After he spoke, he also told me about this old cemetery known as the Claypit which was in Lowell. He showed me the plans of the site and, being the consummate historian, my interest was sparked.
Of course, when we finally went over to the site a few weeks later, it was in far worse condition than I had anticipated. It was May so the leaves were all in bloom on the trees and bushes. We had to park in the bowling alley’s parking lot and walk down along this wooded, overgrown lot. Bud knew where to enter the brush to access the site. We had to walk through bushes with prickly thorns, tall grass, and other types of growth. Then he announced we were in the Claypit Cemetery. The only indication at all that we were standing in a cemetery was the fact that there were some granite posts. He began to point out some headstones that had been toppled over. I think I recall seeing two or three that day. There could have been more but it was too hard to get through the brush. That was my introduction to Dracut’s oldest burying ground.
Being a new teacher, I was too busy to get involved in such a large restoration project. I had no idea how to go about cleaning up a site, who to enlist for help, how to raise funds, and I had no background in Dracut and Lowell local history. Though I was intrigued by restoring and preserving Claypit, I really was not the person for the job at that time. However, I kept the idea of preserving the site in my memory for a later date.
Well, it was now the winter of 2007 and I was in my third year teaching at the Junior High School and I began thinking about Claypit again. Only this time I intended to do more than just think about it. My intention was to move forward with the project. So, I started by finding my copy of the epitaphs recorded by P. Hildreth Parker in 1904. Beyond this, and my visit to the site with Bud, I had very little with which to work. Nevertheless, it was a starting point.
I knew one thing for certain. I wanted students involved in the project. I wanted them involved in the research of the site and the actual cleanup of the site as well. This would be a volunteer effort and our research would be done after school, during school vacations, and on the weekends. Within these basic parameters, is how the Claypit project began in 2007.
I presented my idea to one of my finest and inquisitive students, Emily Fox, and gave her a copy of the epitaphs I had. Her assignment would be to simply begin going through census records to discover who these people were. “Simply” is not an appropriate word to describe the assignment I presented her. I gave her a lesson on census records and how to access them. She in turn enlisted the help of one her friends, Megan Fawcett, and they have spent, and are still spending, countless hours sifting through the census records for information about these early Dracut settlers.
There are countless other primary sources we needed to utilize besides the census records. We also would need to find ecclesiastical records, obituaries, vital records, tax records, land records, and poll tax records to name a few. To date, we have spent time going through the vital records at Dracut Town Hall and the archives at the Dracut Historical Society. In addition, we will also be sifting through the church records at the Pawtucketville Church in the coming week. We’ve been granted access to these records through the graciousness of Rev. Dr. Judith Thurlow.
Also, I contacted W. Dean Eastman, a former teacher of mine at Beverly High School for advice on how to go about such a project as this. He had taught a course for years at Beverly High School, Primary Research through the History of Beverly, which focused on student projects which utilized primary documents. In addition, he and former Beverly High School Librarian Kevin McGrath, have been been kind enough to allow myself and my students, to post our original research on their web site, primaryresearch.org.
We are still in the midst of researching and sorting through the evidence to form a more complete picture of Claypit and the Pawtucketville neighborhood. Actual cleanup of the site, I hope, will commence in the next few weeks. Mr. John Metros of the Dracut Cemetery Department has agreed to help us clear out the area. As work on the project progresses, we will be posting our updated research online. However, in the end, I hope this collaborative venture will foster a better understanding of Dracut’s past among current citizens and give future generations a link to their heritage.
1 Information regarding the site’s address, valuation, ownership can be accessed through the City of Lowell’s Assessor’s Database at http://gis.lowellma.gov/. The parcel id # is: 0042 5880 0810.1 0000
2 Donat H. Paquet, The Photographic History of Dracut (Lowell: The Dracut Historical Society, 1982), p. 153.
3 Her epitaphs have been published by the Dracut Historical Society and can also be found online at the Center for Lowell History’s web site: http://library.uml.edu/clh/
4 Silas R. Coburn, The History of Dracut Massachusetts (Lowell: Press of the Courier-Citizen Company, 1922), p. 274. Coburn’s book is only one of two histories written about Dracut. The other is Donat H. Paquet’s A Photographic History of Dracut published in 1982.
5 It is very likely that interest in Claypit was sparked in 1939 due to an effort by students to help preserve the Webb-Durkee house which was also located on Old Ferry Road and was the first house built in Dracut. The house had fallen into disrepair and the children saved pennies to help renovate the building. This was about the same time as this inventory was taken by the Elks of Claypit. It would seem likely that there was a sudden interest in the neighborhood’s history due to the preservation efforts for the Webb-Durkee house.
6 The notes from the Lowell Historical Society were found in the Dracut Historical Society’s collection.
7 Paquet, p. 152.
8 Ibid, p. 152. Paquet took an active interest in Dracut’s history and this was not the first time he had involved his students in local history projects though this was probably one of their biggest undertakings. He was an English teacher at Dracut High School and had for years required his students to write original research papers using local, Dracut history. In addition to their research papers, he had them create scale models of historic buildings around town. One of these models is still on display at the Dracut Historical Society. It is of the Varnum Garrison House and was made from actual timbers from the home. A portrait of Paquet can be seen at the Dracut Historical Society today.
9 It is this author’s opinion that the reason given by Manoian for the intentional neglect of the site is a poor one at best. It is a historical society’s responsibility, any historical society, to help preserve the history and heritage of a town or city. Sites such as Claypit are a direct link with those who came before us and to purposefully ignore the care of such a site, a site that includes Revolutionary and Civil War veterans, and allowing debris such as car axles to be dumped there, is nothing short of disrespectful. In order to understand who we are, we must understand our past. This understanding will in turn not only create a respect for our forefathers and their accomplishments but also stir a pride in ourselves as a community. As historian David McCullough was simply stated, “Indifference to history isn’t just ignorant, it’s rude. It’s a form of ingratitude.”
10 Patrick Cook, “Secrets are uncovered at cemetery,” TheLowell Sun, January 5, 1992, pp. 9 & 12.