It’s been 45 years since the ribbon-cutting at Memorial Park, the park that replaced Lincoln Cemetery along North Pitt Street between Penn and Lincoln streets in Carlisle.
The site has come under new focus in recent weeks with the approval of a planned gift from the U.S. Army War College Class of 2019, a town hall meeting Tuesday evening and a project at the Cumberland County Historical Society.
A town hall meeting focusing on Carlisle's Lincoln Cemetery will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. April 16.
It’s a focus that some said has been decades in the making.
“It’s time to have a conversation about what happened. It’s time to really look at the history of that site. It’s time to create a fuller narrative about our past,” said Cara Curtis, archives and library director at the Cumberland County Historical Society.
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Last week, the borough council approved an agreement with the War College Class of 2019 for the future care and maintenance of an archway to the former Lincoln Cemetery that is being donated by the class.
Councilwoman Brenda Landis said the arch should be installed by May, and a ceremony will be held with the Haines-Stackfield American Legion on Memorial Day. At that point, the War College’s participation ends save for assistance with maintenance, but that is not the end of the work at the former cemetery.
On Tuesday, a town hall meeting will discuss the history of Lincoln Cemetery; past, present and future research efforts; and investments to restore the sanctity of the ground. The meeting will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. in the community room of 1 West Penn.
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The meeting and the work on the archway comes as the Historical Society launches a two-phase project to better understand not only Lincoln Cemetery, but also other lost cemeteries throughout Cumberland County, said Lindsay Varner, the society’s community outreach director.
The project is part of a broader work of uncovering the whole narrative of Cumberland County’s history, and incorporating lost stories back into the narrative, Varner said.
“You cannot tell the borough’s history or the county’s history without looking at all of the history. We cannot ignore the history that makes people uncomfortable or the history that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending,” Curtis said.
The first phase, which Varner said the society hopes to complete by the end of the year, is to launch a website that they will continue to tweak and perfect before a larger opening to the public during Black History Month in February 2020. That phase will focus on the history of the site from its beginnings to 1905 when it closed and then from 1905 up through to the present when it became a park.
Phase two of the project looks at the oral histories of the site whether it concerns the changeover from the cemetery to the park or the stories of the ancestors who are buried there.
Curtis said stories from families and the community are important because they are not going to be part of the official record.
“We like to understand the site as fully as possible and hear from the community and what their thoughts are whether it be their family history or their remembrances of when it became a park,” Varner said.
The Historical Society is also working on creating biographies of the people buried there, but Varner said they don’t yet know the number of people interred.
“This will be an ongoing project if there are as many people there as we believe,” Varner said.
Years ago, before search engines could scan countless newspaper pages in one sweep, Janet Bell painstakingly went through microfilm to learn more about the people buried at Lincoln Cemetery. Her research went into a book, “Lincoln Cemetery: ‘The Story Down Under,’ 1884-1905,” that Varner said the Historical Society has used in the current research.
“We know that the cemetery list will never be perfect but we will do our best to make it as good and complete as possible,” Curtis said.
More than 30 Civil War veterans are buried there. As Decoration Day — now Memorial Day — became common celebrations, the community remembered the veterans there.
“The cemetery may not have been important to everyone within the community, but the soldiers who sacrificed and fought for the country were honored,” Curtis said.
One of the challenges with creating a history of the cemetery is that it’s difficult to pinpoint the date the cemetery opened. Curtis spent hours and hours looking at deeds, finally finding a mention of it on an 1836 deed for a nearby property.
“The names and lives of the people buried there are important. I want to make sure that people near and far can see it and read their names. It is important that we acknowledge and remember them,” Curtis said.
Curtis said that as she has gotten older and thinks about sites, she’s become concerned about how long it takes for sites to be forgotten as hallowed ground.
“I didn’t want people to forget that Lincoln Cemetery is important not just because of what happened to it, but also because of who is buried there. They were an important part of our community,” she said.