Genealogy Society finds tombstones buried at Windsor Grove cemetery

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What’s in a name? For a local group of ancestry devotees willing to get dirty to uncover family histories, the names unveil the stories of Windsor.

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Over the past four or five decades, the Essex County branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society has made it their mission to document and digitize names and dates on gravestones across Windsor-Essex. In recent years, however, they have uncovered tombstones buried at Windsor Grove Cemetery – one of the city’s oldest cemeteries – which prompted the addition of shovels and shovels to their quest for knowledge.

It’s interesting, the things we find

Pulling a kid’s cart filled with buckets, scrub brushes, monument-safe soaps, and a small pressurized water sprayer, a handful of members walk cautiously between the graves, each looking at the stones and ground around them looking for clues that could lead to hidden information. They are looking for large grassy patches devoid of gravestones where squat gravestones have likely sunk into the ground and have been buried. They also look for monuments that appear to lack tall pillars, which may have fallen and been allowed to slowly descend underground.

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When they find a promising spot, they use a thin, pointed pole with a handle to stab the grass until they hit something hard. Then the digging begins.

Ray Morneau (left) and his nephew Ray Morneau of Hallmark Memorial Co. lift a buried monument pillar from the ground at Windsor Grove Cemetery on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. The pillar was found by members of the Essex County branch from the Ontario Genealogical Society.  .
Ray Morneau (left) and his nephew Ray Morneau of Hallmark Memorial Co. lift a buried monument pillar from the ground at Windsor Grove Cemetery on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. The pillar was found by members of the Essex County branch from the Ontario Genealogical Society. . Photo by Taylor Campbell /Windsor Star

“We’re trying to save what we can of family history,” Genealogical Society member David Hutchinson told The Star.

Some of the cemetery files were lost in a fire a long time ago, he said. None of the hidden graves his group found while pushing the ground were listed until they came to dig them up.

“For us, it’s pretty fun. But as we go through one, we get the names and information so that we can add them to the databases. “

Earlier this week, the group unearthed two pillars that had fallen from large monuments installed in 1869, three years after Windsor Grove Cemetery was established. The monuments were for John Furzer Elliot and Josiah Strong, two “eminent and wealthy” men in Canada in the mid-19th century, according to documents from the Essex Historical Society. The monuments also listed the names of a few members of each family.

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When the rain-soaked ground dries out, representatives from Hallmark Memorial Co., a monument company in Oldcastle, will use heavy machinery to lift the pillars and put them back in place.

A buried headstone unearthed and cleaned by the Essex County branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society at Windsor Grove Cemetery is seen with the group's cart full of cleaning supplies on Tuesday, October 26, 2021.
A buried headstone unearthed and cleaned by the Essex County branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society at Windsor Grove Cemetery is seen with the group’s cart full of cleaning supplies on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. Photo by Taylor Campbell /Windsor Star

When not digging in the cemetery, the genealogical society cleans up gravestones that are above ground but difficult to read. They use a mild soap intended for washing horses because dish soap can damage old stones. For tombstones covered with lichen, they use a special biodegradable cleaner called D / 2.

Every time they reveal a new name, they take a photo and write it down.

“These guys did a fantastic job,” said Ed Shabsove, managing director of the cemetery, who noted how successful the genealogical company was in cleaning up some previously unreadable headstones.

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About four or five years ago, Shabsove regularly received complaints about the condition of Windsor Grove Cemetery, which had crooked gravestones, poorly maintained trees and dilapidated infrastructure, and was in desperate need of attention. Thousands of people are buried there, including Windsor’s first mayor, Samuel Smith MacDonell, Gordon McGregor, who helped found Ford of Canada, union leader Charlie Brooks and dozens of First and Second veterans. World War, to name a few.

With Windsor Grove long at full capacity and with no source of income, Windsor Memorial Gardens, the non-profit organization that also looks after the 155-year-old cemetery, has supported its upkeep. Over the past three years or so, Shabsove said they have devoted a significant amount of resources to turning the cemetery into something of beauty. They straightened 300 to 500 monuments every year – labor-intensive work.

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“We try to make it fantastic,” Shabsove said. “The transformation we are achieving is showing, and honestly, we are getting a lot of compliments from people. “

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The branch of the local genealogical society was “a big help” in making this change happen, he said. Over the next two years, Shabsove hopes to establish historical tours through the cemetery, highlighting the stories of those buried there.

“Almost everyone knows someone who is buried there. I’m so happy with where he went.

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Pat Clancy, a genealogical society advisor, said her group helps those looking for their own family tree.

“You know other people are doing the same elsewhere – it’s a great community,” she said. “It’s interesting, the things we find.”

To date, the Essex County branch of the Genealogical Society has transcribed information from about 20,000 headstones across the region. Since starting to search for buried headstones in Windsor Grove three years ago, they have found around five each week during the summer months and early fall.

“It’s never ending,” Clancy said.

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