Echoes: The Pioneer Cemetery of Umfraville

Patrick Kavanagh portrait 5

Patrick Kavanagh portrait 5

Published in Country Roads Magazine, Spring 2012

Alone in the wilds of a foreign country, walking mile after mile on weary legs, Anastasia Kelly must have been terrified as night fell.  Already she had faced a long arduous journey, and what would come next was still a mystery to her.

Leaving the only life she’d ever known behind in Ireland, Kelly boarded a sailing vessel bound for Montreal.  But according to one historian, she instead ended up in Bermuda after strong winds blew the vessel off course. She boarded another ship, finally arriving in Canada, and made her way via primitive transit systems to Hastings County.  She was 16 years old, traveling without companion.

It was the mid 1800’s and the Canadian government, in an attempt to open up the interior of Ontario, was giving land grants to settlers who could prove themselves worthy by achieving ‘three in three’: clearing and cultivating three acres of land within three years.

The settlers were also required to establish a viable home and work the land for another two years before being granted a deed to the property.  Kelly was joining her uncle at Kavanagh Settlement - later renamed Umfraville - a day’s ride north of Madoc.  But the trip took her two days because instead of traveling by horse, she walked.

Today if you turn off Hwy 62 onto Old Hastings Road, you don’t have to travel very far before you reach Umfraville Road.  The post office and school are long gone, as are the store and way station.  All that remains is a small secluded cemetery.

“It was a shock.  We saw it through the leaves,” says Irene St. Rose.  She and her husband Jem bought property in Dungannon Township in the early 1970’s.  They had no idea that their acreage included a pioneer cemetery. Dense foliage had obscured it during the summer when they took ownership, but as the leaves changed colour and fell, it came into view.

“We said, look we have a cemetery on our property,” recounts Jem, of his address to Dungannon council.  Dungannon had not yet amalgamated with the town of Bancroft.

“They said, ‘No you don’t’.  The town had no record of it.  Then they came out and said, ‘Oh yes, you have all these tombstones here’,” remembers Jem, with a chuckle.

Hundred-acre farms were granted to settlers in the early 1850’s, but many were abandoned because the living conditions, particularly during the long cold winters, were too harsh.  Without roads, electricity, or running water, the families that stayed - including the Kellys, Doyles, O’Neills, Finnigans, McCabes, Gaffeneys, Murphys, and Kavanaghs -successfully homesteaded through sheer determination and hard labour.

Dermot “Darby” Kavanagh ran the general store and way station where travelers could stay overnight and board their horses.  In 1864 the federal government established an official Post Office, renaming the settlement Umfraville.  Darby Kavanagh was named Post Master.  He married Anastasia Kelly that same year, and together they raised seven children.

The St. Roses, along with descendents of the Umfraville pioneers, and the town of Bancroft, are now in the process of having the cemetery designated a historical site.

“Throughout its history the cemetery has remained on private property. Because of this, there is always a danger of the property being sold to someone who would not respect the graves of the people buried there,” says Mary Kavanagh.  She is the great granddaughter of Anastasia Kelly and Darby Kavanagh, and the family historian.

Earlier this year, while there was still snow on the ground, I visited Umfraville. I was interviewing neighbours, one of whom agreed to take me out to the cemetery in her four-wheel-drive truck.  I knew my vehicle wouldn’t make the trip because Umfraville Road is not maintained by the municipality.  Descendents of the Kellys and Kavanaghs maintain it, but even so, when the snow is deep traveling it can be treacherous.

We drove down Old Hastings Road, a beautiful winding account of the region, and turned onto Umfraville road.  A wall of tall leafless trees on either side of the narrowing trail reached up and over us like bony fingers.  After a kilometer or so of slow careful driving with branches scraping the truck’s windows, followed by a ten minute hike uphill, we arrived at the graveyard.

The stones are weathered; hard to read.  In the snow, especially, they emanate stillness, silence, timelessness.  There are only eleven tombstones, but sources say this is only the tip of the iceberg - that others were buried, some with wooden markers that nature reclaimed, some with no markers at all.

“I remember one little baby’s crib that I took care of,” remembers Jack Kelly, an Umfraville descendent who has lived in a house just down the road from the cemetery since 1951.  “There was no stone, just a little picket fence.”  That marker is gone now.

Many of the graves belong to infants.  Some of the pioneer families lost multiple children to whooping cough or scarlet fever over a matter of weeks or months.  Standing in front of one stone I am overwhelmed: how heartbreaking to go through the hardships and sacrifices of carving a life out of the wilderness, only to helplessly watch as your children take ill and die, one after another.

While I take photos, my guide heads back to the truck to turn it around.  But it gets stuck in the snow.  After failed attempts to get it free we start walking.  The sun is setting and the temperature is dropping, it seems, by the second.  I dig my hands deep into my pockets, and try not to think about bears or coyotes.

Instead I find myself thinking of Anastasia Kelly.  Not just of the children she buried in Umfraville Cemetery, but of her long walk to the settlement years before her marriage to Darby Kavanagh.  No guide, no map, no flashlight, no food.  According to one source, her long trek was the result of a cruel prank: when she arrived in Madoc and asked how to reach Kavanagh Settlement, someone told her it was just a short jaunt down the trail.  She walked, expecting to see her uncle’s farm appear around each corner, for two days.

Mary Kavanagh says although the cemetery was not previously included on municipal maps or records, it “should never be referred to as an abandoned cemetery” because her family always knew it was there, and has been caring for it for generations.

“In the summers each kid would get a lawn mower and we’d cut the grass,” Kavanagh says of her childhood, adding, “We’ve always had that commitment.”

For all these years, Umfraville’s decedents, along with the St. Roses, have been caring for the cemetery.  It’s a part of them.  A part of their story.  And it keeps them connected.  Ten years ago the St. Roses grieved the passing of their daughter.  She rests in the Umfraville cemetery now, its first burial since 1907.  Her parents plan to be laid alongside her someday.

“The only reason we have kept the land is to protect the cemetery,” confesses Jem.  After retiring from his medical practice, he and Irene moved to Peterborough.  They sold their house and cottage on Old Hastings Road, but held onto the remainder of the land.

He doesn’t want a repeat of what happened during a sabbatical he took in the 1970’s.  After returning from a year abroad, the St. Roses were shocked to discover the tombstones were missing.

According to Jack Kelly, the stones were removed in an attempt to protect them.  Because the cemetery was unregistered and on private land there was no guarantee it would be looked after. Kelly says notices were put in the local newspaper, and when no objections were filed, the stones were moved to the Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church Cemetery on Hwy 62, where other members of the pioneer families are buried.

Within a year the stones were returned to Umfraville.  The St. Roses agreed to register the cemetery, which they did, and with eager help from Umfraville descendents, they moved each stone back, as close to its original spot as possible.  Years later a plaque and giant cross were erected, and the cemetery was blessed in a ceremony by Father Terrence Sirosky and members of the Knights of Columbus.

“If we have to keep the cemetery as long as we live to protect it, we will,” avows Jem.

That won’t likely be necessary.  The town of Bancroft and Hastings County have each responded positively to the historical application process thus far.

“Both myself and the Historical Society president are quite familiar with Umfraville Cemetery and it is worthy of all possible protection,” says Richard Hughes of the Hastings County Historical Society. “The Bancroft area has a very interesting history with some very determined people opening up the land through  mining, lumbering and farming  and every effort should be made not only to protect this heritage, but equally to make it known to the younger generations. It creates civic pride when the current citizens can see where they came from and how much earlier generations contributed to make the area what it is today.”

If all goes according to plan, the cemetery should be classed a historical site within the next few months.  A survey of the land is being conducted, after which the town of Bancroft will prepare a statement of significance, before passing a bylaw to designate the cemetery a historical site.  This will protect the land from any future development, and ensure that the graves are not disturbed.  St. Rose says he will be happy to sign the cemetery over to the town once all the requirements have been met.

Officially, upkeep of the cemetery will then be the town’s responsibility, but Kavanagh says her family will continue to care for the site.  And she expects it will be added to.

“I would like to explore family genealogies and find the names of [additional] people who were buried there,” she says. “An idea I have is to create a central monument with brick-size pieces added to it containing the vital information of each individual as information is uncovered.”  As family historian she has her work cut out for her, but if her heritage says anything about her, I’m sure she’s up to the task.