Parsons Cemetery receives state preservation award

From left: Sarah Hughes, Neil Carey, Tom Smith, Carol Smith, Katie Parks of Preservation Maryland, Scott Pegg, the Rev. David Michaud and Dr. Bob Taylor.

Members of the Parsons Cemetery Advisory Committee gathered recently at the cemetery to accept a surprise award from Preservation Maryland.

The Community Choice Award, although unexpected, provides a public and welcome affirmation of the committee members’ loving stewardship of the historic cemetery located in the heart of one of Salisbury’s oldest residential areas. 

It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful place to spend eternity than at Parsons Cemetery, situated on carefully maintained grounds stretching from North Division Street to Johnson’s Pond and full of local history, beautiful monuments and current residents of the area who come for the tree-lined pathways, green shrubbery and wildlife that share the space.

Framed on two sides by residential back yards, it is at once a quiet place of eternal rest and a welcoming park-like space that’s full of life. Joggers and visitors on a stroll enjoy a lakefront walkway as well as the many walkways that shape and define the sections of gravesites.

Cemeteries such as Parsons, with their natural beauty and peaceful environs, were in the mid-19th century an inspiration for the rise of spaces we know as city parks.

Much of the current appeal of Parsons Cemetery is due to the stewardship and loving care of its all-volunteer governing committee.

The property is owned by Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, located nearby in Downtown Salisbury, but managed today as a separate entity, the Parsons Cemetery Advisory Committee.

The award came as a complete surprise to members of the committee.

“Each year Preservation Maryland recognizes the people, projects and places that exemplify and advance our statewide movement to preserve Maryland’s historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes and archaeological sites,” said Katie Parks, Director of Development at the organization.

“They really seemed to like our use of digital technology and social media to preserve the history of the cemetery and also tell the stories of those resting there through Facebook posts and online self-guided walking tours,” said Carol Smith, a member of the Parsons Cemetery Advisory Committee, the independent and all-volunteer governing body.

“Preservation Maryland was also complimentary of our community support and our ability to keep the cemetery beautiful,” Smith said.

Parsons’ growing digital footprint has been helped by support from several Salisbury University faculty members, their students and staff at the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at SU.

Even the SU Art Department has gotten involved, creating art from fallen trees on the property. In addition, the Wicomico County Public Schools Department of Career Technology at Parkside High School has gotten its students involved with a variety of landscape design and welding repair projects.

Dr. Brent Zaprowski, Professor of Geology at SU, and his students have located about 500 unmarked veterans’ graves that are now included in the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony, sponsored locally by Jeff Merrit of Operation We Care.

Zaprowski worked with Dr. Stuart Hamilton, professor of geography, using drones and the global positioning system to map the locations of all veterans interred at Parsons.

The cemetery is known to be the final resting place for 1,254 veterans whose service encompasses the War of 1812 to recent conflicts.

History

The property – 18 acres in all — comprising Parsons Cemetery was donated in 1873 by Benjamin Parsons. It is a mid-19th century garden-type cemetery containing more than 13,000 gravesites and monuments, some of which predate the donation date because it was first a family cemetery that was opened to the community during the Civil War.

Re-interments began in 1873 and continue today for reasons of family choice, church choice and urban development.

This property was once a rural family farm, although you would never guess that looking at it today. 

Today, it seems, history is coming full circle with new life coming to cemeteries like Parsons.

Room for more

Parsons, despite its 13,000-plus occupied gravesites, is not full.

 In 2004, at the suggestion of Taylor, the Parsons Cemetery Advisory Council was formed as an independent governing body.

“It’s hard for a church to manage a nonprofit business in addition to its own affairs,” said Taylor.

In addition to Taylor, members of the original committee included Neil Carey, who serves as secretary and archivist, and Tom Smith, who retired this year from the committee but remains an emeritus member. Both are residents of the community surrounding Parsons, and Taylor, a retired pathologist, is a parishioner at St. Peter’s.

Carey described the committee as close-knit.

“We’ve been working on this together for 16 years now,” he said, “and we never argue. We get along well, sharing an interest in local history for one thing.”

Taylor pointed out that while he agrees with Carey about the bond among longtime members, he is also excited to have younger members getting involved, citing the tech help from SU professor Zaprowski and Scott Pegg from the county public school system.

Sarah Hughes, a St. Peter’s parishioner and committee member who serves as an archivist and liaison to the Nabb Center, talked about other types of support Parsons receives from the community.

For example, her brother-in-law, Steve Marsh, works at George Miles and Buhr, an engineering consulting firm in Salisbury.

“We needed help stabilizing the bank of the lake,” said Hughes. “He helped design what you see now, a brick walkway with mulch and plantings along what used to be a small sandy lakefront beach that was eroding.

“In my visit today not only did I appreciate the beauty of the site and the passion of the committee,” said Parks, “but the wonderful opportunity for the community to engage with and learn about the stories of their neighbors.”

Veterans at rest in Parsons include Isaac Handy, who was a colonel in the Maryland Militia prior to the American Revolutionary War; veterans of the War of 1812, Civil War, World Wars I and II; the Korean and Vietnam wars and some of the conflicts of the past three centuries.

Other local luminaries who were interred at Parsons include Maude R. Toulson, first female Postmaster in the United States; Dr. George W. Todd, founder of what is now Peninsula Regional Medical Center in 1897; Dr. William James Holloway, founder of Salisbury Normal School (now Salisbury University) in 1925; Fred A. Grier Sr., a Salisbury Fire Department chief who was buried along with his horse; Sister Mary Elizabeth Gintling, founder of Joseph House Ministries and the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary; Bertha Sheppard Adkins, a member of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame and the first woman to be appointed Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and many more notable individuals.

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.