Pioneer Cemetery

In the town of Sidney you will find, nestled between the library and the Susquehanna River, a little spot called the Pioneer Cemetery. Tina has been drawn to this quiet setting since she worked at the library as a teenager.

Just like your house or car, cemeteries need periodic maintenance. The freeze/thaw cycles of our cold northern winters wreak havoc on the gravestones and force them up from the ground. In time they may completely fall over – even break. It was obvious this hallowed piece of ground had been neglected for some time.

In August of 2021, I needed to take a book to the Sidney Historical Association and happened to meet Mike Wood. I asked about doing volunteer work in the Pioneer Cemetery. A few days later we heard from Mike and he told us we had permission from the town of Sidney to commence work in the cemetery. We were thrilled to be able to make some much-needed improvements to this special place.

We got to work and performed an assessment of the cemetery. We found approximately 220 gravestones, the majority of which were either marble or sandstone. Of that number, nearly one-third of them needed attention.

When we work in a cemetery we develop a commitment to it and can’t help but wonder about the history of the cemetery itself, as well as the people buried in it. Now our passion for fixing the stones turns into research to learn more.

The first burial in the cemetery was that of Lois Johnston who died July 27, 1787, and was the first wife of Witter Johnston. He was the son of William Johnston who came to the area in 1770 and settled here with his family in 1773. Things seemed to be going well until the Indian uprisings during the Revolutionary War which forced them to flee to Cherry Valley in 1777. After his father’s death and the end of the war, Witter returned with his family to Sidney in 1784, as the head of the Johnston household. He was buried in the cemetery in 1839.

A gravestone with a date of 1787 is one of the oldest burials in the area and is a real treasure for the community. What makes the stone more interesting is that it was carved by Jonas W. Stewart, 2nd. Most people know him as “Coffin Man,” made famous in this area by our mentor, dear friend and gravestone carver researcher Mary Dexter. Many examples of his work and that of his apprentice, Open Urn Man, can be found here. Her book, “On the Trail of Coffin Man,” can be ordered from the Cortland Historical Society.

By 1875 the cemetery was running out of room and Prospect Hill Cemetery was established. The last burial in Pioneer Cemetery was about 1900. By 1899 at least 27 total bodies had been transferred to the new cemetery. There was talk of moving all the bodies but in 1904 that was deemed impractical.

The building of a new bridge in 1935 had a major impact on the cemetery. At that time the cemetery lost a strip of land to the new road coming from the bridge. We read that some bodies were transferred from one part of the cemetery to another but couldn’t confirm it. During this time the ownership of the cemetery was pursued but never determined, so the town of Sidney assumed its care and upkeep.

Last winter the Sidney Historical Association was making plans for Sidney’s 250th anniversary celebration. We were asked to do a cemetery tour and we agreed. The turnout on June 10 was amazing – 50-60 people showed up. We asked Mary Dexter to be part of the event and she was the highlight of the tour, sharing her 50 years of research and knowledge. People were thrilled when she laid on the ground to demonstrate the placement of headstones and footstones and the traditional placement of the body in an east/west direction.

Numerous identified gravestone carvers are represented in Pioneer Cemetery: Coffin Man, Open Urn Man, Rainbow Man, S.R. Ford and John F. Perkins. Stones can be found that have Coffin Man’s vertical coffins at the bottom as well as carved winged faces. A flying angel is represented on a child’s stone. A traditional winged face like those found in New England is waiting to be discovered. A ledger stone, covering the full grave, is a rare find. One of my favorites is a pair of birds engraved on a stone. We have visited cemeteries all over the state but it is only here that we find two adjustable, metal bases that gravestones are set in.

The oldest stones in a cemetery are called primitives, gravestones carved by a family member, friend or maybe a neighbor, not a professional carver. Sometimes they are only a fieldstone placed on edge and have no writing at all. The gravestone of Clarissa and Polly Dovener, who died during an epidemic in 1803, is a special stone with two intertwined, frowning faces.

One of the most notable burials found in Pioneer Cemetery is that of Israel Smith. He was a patriot of the American Revolution and a Sufferer from Brattleboro, Vermont. His great-grandson, three times elected governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, became the 19th president of the United States.

The members of the Sidney Historical Association have long had interest in the Pioneer Cemetery. Raymond Ballard did a gravestone condition report in 1990. For years Mike Wood has done gravestone and cemetery maintenance. The archives contain two Pioneer Cemetery inventories, one done by Alice Tyne, which have been invaluable in our research. In 2007 the cemetery was placed on the New York State and National Register of Historical Places. Bonnie Curtis has placed many gravestones on the Find a Grave website. We would like to thank everyone in the Sidney Historical Association for contributing to, documenting and preserving its history.

The Sidney Historical Association is currently seeking funding for construction of a fence around the cemetery. A fence will help protect the cemetery and recognize its community value. The association’s treasurer, Dave Plummer, is spearheading the effort. The association will contribute a significant amount to the project. Donations can be sent to Sidney Historical Association, 44 Grand Street, Sidney, NY 13838.

We would like to thank the following people for their help and support in our Pioneer Cemetery preservation efforts: Sidney Mayor Andrew Matviak, Sidney Supervisor Eric Wilson, Sidney Highway Superintendent Jamie Roberts Jr., and a special thank you to Superintendent for Public Works Brandon McEwan and his crew for the fine job they do to maintain the cemetery. This is not an easy job and we appreciate the special care given to these fragile gravestones.

October 4, 2022