Preserving old cemeteries before they're gone

Mary Harris epitomizes the devoted wife. According to a story passed through her family for generations, she forged into the Revolutionary War, driven by a nightmare that her husband, Robert, lie wounded 75 miles from their Concord home.

Never mind the 2,000 Redcoats delivering lead balls by musket and striking soldiers like pins with a single canon ball. Armed with a fierce allegiance, she stayed long enough to find her husband's broken body and bring him home.

The Colonel, 44, lost his arm in that 1781 tussle between the British on the steps of the Guilford Courthouse in Greensboro. For the next 22 years he went by the nickname One-Armed Robert to distinguish him from other kin of the same name.

Motorists today pass the Revolutionary War veteran and his wife, Mary, every time they travel Weddington Road to the racetrack, Concord Mills or the new Walmart. The couple shares a soapstone marker under a single crape myrtle barely visible from the road.

McClure Cemetery is one of a few old family graveyards in Cabarrus County to be preserved during a time when old family graveyards are dying off nationwide.

Besides the Harrises, another Revolutionary War veteran, Col. George Alexander, rests in McClure. So do members of the Meek family. Adam Meek, a surveyor, laid out the first Cabarrus county lines. The Galloway family, wealthy farmers who held much real estate in Cabarrus County, also used McClure as their final resting place.

In total, 10 tombstones stand rank and file inside the split-rail fence protecting them.

Preserving old graveyards remains important to residents like Bernard Cruse Jr., of the Cabarrus Genealogy Society. "Those people created our history, and by all means we should remember them," he said.

Unfortunately, the more time goes by, the harder it becomes. George Edison Creel, a volunteer with the Tombstone Project, travels the nation documenting graveyards. "I look for old country or family cemeteries in particular because they will not be maintained in the future," he said. "Sadly, North Carolina abounds in them." His work has brought him to Concord before.

Determining where graveyards are and who is in them is not easy. The process to restore McClure Cemetery is a prime example. The project began in 1994 when the land left family ownership, and development of the hotels, restaurants and shopping centers began.

Archeologist Steve Webb was given the task of delineating the site, which actually consisted of two abandoned family cemeteries. Nearly 200 graves existed, many without tombstones, either because the tombstones were made of wood or because they simply washed away after the centuries. Col. Thomas McClure, the cemetery's namesake, doesn't have a tombstone in the cemetery for this reason. He is thought to be buried in the unmarked section.

The wooden coffins long gone, old nails and hinges surrounded the bodies, along with personal items buried in the graves.

Webb found bobby pins used to keep bonnets tight inside infant graves. Women's graves were scattered with milk-glass buttons and hair ornaments. Military brass buttons were found with several of the men.

They offer just a tease of what life was like more than 200 years ago in Concord.

This was a time when women were excited over a newly patented gadget called the washboard.

The first U.S. cookbook called for ingredients like whortleberries and crookneck, and had a section titled Tasty Indian Puddings.

Farmers whistled Yankee Doodle while plowing the fields.

Finding descendents proved difficult for Webb, although he did find a few. One relative of the Harris line relayed the story of One-Armed Robert to Webb, who confirmed that indeed Harris was missing a limb. "That's always gratifying when history matches up with archeology," he said.