Saturday, December 5, 2015

Rest in Peace - A Piece of Family History

Maryann and William John Gilpin outside
their home in Enfield, Massachusetts

Many of the stories my mother passed down to me were stories passed down to her from her grandfather. After her mother died when she was five, she moved around from one relative to another, but the home she spoke of most fondly was that with her paternal grandparents in Enfield, Massachusetts.

William John and Maryann Bannister Gilpin had settled there with their family after emigrating from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. There they had been linen weavers. A loom was set up in the house, and every member of the family took part in the making of this fine fabric made from the flax plants that grew nearby. 

Life was not easy. Though they all worked hard to create this beautiful material, it ended up on the tables and in the closets of the wealthier people in the area, but William John did not complain. He took most things in his stride, accepting what he saw as God's will.

But tragedy can test one's faith.. One day as he returned from a trip to the village, he saw Maryann coming out to greet him, carrying something in her arms. As he got closer, he saw that it was the tiny body of their son, William John, his namesake. Through her tears Maryann explained that he had fallen in a well, and by the time he was rescued, it was too late to save him.

William John was overcome with grief, yet he knew it was his responsibility to give the child a Christian burial, and having no money to buy a fancy casket, he fashioned a small box from wood he had salvaged and buried the child quietly in a corner of the church cemetery. Then every morning before the sun came up he would return to the small plot and say a prayer.

About a month later when he came to the cemetery one morning he found the plot had been dug up and the small coffin containing his child lay on a mound of dirt. He realized immediately that the grave had been appropriated for the casket of a town official who had died, a member of one of the wealthy families who bought the fine linen that his family had weaved.

When he arrived back home later than usual, he explained to Maryann what had happened. She  was distraught thinking of her child discarded so thoughtlessly, but then he explained he had taken their son and buried him again "somewhere where only God and I know." Presumably he continued to pray over his son in his new resting place for the years that they were to remain in Northern Ireland.

Swift River Company Mill
Their relocation began after Jim, their oldest son, fell in love with Sarah Hickland, and Sarah's family sailed to the United States and settled in Enfield, Massachusetts. Jim soon boarded a ship and followed her there where he proved to Mr. Smith of the woolen mill that he was a skilled weaver. Once Mr. Smith saw what Jim could do, he agreed to send for the rest of the family and there they settled in the Smiths' Village section of Enfield. 

William John Gilpin Home

And it was to their small home in the Smiths' Village years later that my mother was to come after her mother died. Her cousin, Uncle Jim's daughter, Ruth Vivian lived nearby, and she soon made many friends. Her grandmother was a great cook and taught her to make Irish delicacies like champ and potato bread.

She went to elementary school there, and then began high school at Belchertown High School, but when her father got a job in Springfield, she and her sister Gertrude were able to be with him, so they moved back to the city. 

Not long after they moved back, her grandmother and then her grandfather died. They returned to Enfield for the funeral and the burial in the church cemetery there. Watching her grandfather's coffin being lowered into the ground, she remembered his story of the child he buried so long ago, and she wondered if he were still resting in peace.

Neither her grandfather nor her grandmother were to rest in peace very long for it had been decided that the Swift River Valley--home to the towns of Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott--was to be flooded to create Quabbin Reservoir that would provide water for the city of Boston. 

Vera Gilpin Schneeloch
at the Gilpin marker
Quabbin Park Cemetery
Soon all that had been of these four towns was razed, moved, or destroyed. This included those interred in the cemeteries. A new cemetery was created on the other side of Route 9, and all the graves were disinterred and buried again in the new Quabbin Park Cemetery.

So William John and Maryann who had endured the trauma of having their son disinterred and reburied were themselves disinterred and reburied. 

At least now there is a marker with their names engraved.  New names have been added including that of my grandfather William John Gilpin, Jr. He was to receive the name of the child who had been lost so many years ago.