In honor of Thanksgiving, the following letter was submitted
to the Lowell Sun but was not published.
Letter to the Editor:
The origins of Thanksgiving in the United States are historically
traced back to the time of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony.
Today we celebrate Thanksgiving each November and much mythology
has arisen around our national holiday. Today we celebrate
with turkey, stuffing, and football. Many of our customs could
not even have been imagined by the early settlers back in
1621. However, something that has remained the same for them
and us is the fact that we take time on Thanksgiving to reflect
on what we have and how thankful we are for it. Thanksgiving
also provides us a time during which we can reflect on those
who came before us to help establish our nation and on a more
local level, our own community. Without their endeavors our
community may not be as we know it today.
The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and
as time passed during the 17th century, more and more settlers
arrived in Massachusetts Bay and made New England their home.
The first settler to permanently settle in Dracut was Edward
Coburn and Dracut became a town in 1701.
However, today, over three centuries after Edward Coburn
and the other settlers of Dracut established a town, very
few, if any, are aware that they are passing by one of the
earliest vestiges of Dracut history as they drive along the
Boulevard in Lowell. Located between the Brunswick 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. Over the years, Claypit
has gone by other names such as the Old Burying Ground and
the Pierce/Coburn Cemetery. Originally, it most likely was
once a private cemetery for the Coburn family. Several Coburns
are buried there. However, as time passed it began to be used
as a neighborhood burial ground since other Pawtucketville
families are known to have been buried there.
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.
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
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 described 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. 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.
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. 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.
However, after the cleanup of the site, Claypit was, like
so many times before, left alone. No provisions were made
to maintain the site.
Over the past several months, I have spent numerous hours
researching this historically significant, colonial cemetery
along with the aid of students and colleagues. The Boston
Globe and The Valley Dispatch have both published articles
about the research we have done. In addition, our work can
be accessed online at primaryresearch.org.
The town of Dracut continuously denies they are responsible
for maintaining this cemetery; a position they have maintained
for years and a position which has allowed the site to fall
into the embarrassing and disgraceful condition in which it
now lies. I would be willing, along with the others who have
researched Claypit, to help Dracut officials properly restore
this site as historically accurate as possible and create
a feasible plan for the proper maintenance of this cemetery.
However, Dracut officials have demonstrated a lack of vision
and leadership in honoring those at Claypit. I seriously doubt
this will change in the near future. Perhaps it is time for
the City of Lowell to step forward and do what Dracut has
been unwilling to do for so long—restore and preserve
a piece of history for the future.