A matter of grave concern
If Harold Card’s neighbors could talk, they’d have a treasure trove of stories to tell, from fleeing Indian attacks, to building ice cream empires, to murder and tales of war and witchcraft.
Sitting at his kitchen table and sipping a cup of hot cocoa, Card relates story after story as though he has actually entertained his neighbors over the years. Perhaps, after tending to their place of rest and sneaking glimpses into their personal histories for half a century, he has come closer than anyone alive to doing so.
“They feel like family,” said Card. “We’ve gotten to know these people.”
Since purchasing their home on Van Burenville Road in 1961, Harold and Cathy Card have watched over the Pine Hill Cemetery, home of many of the town’s forefathers and local notables.
Over the years the work needed in the cemetery was growing. Teens had begun to hang out in the cemetery smoking. It all came to a head one day in 1990 when Card spotted a teenager absconding with a gravestone. That was the last straw for Card, who approached the state and town about cleaning it up. Former Town Supervisor Bob Brennan took on the project, sending highway and parks employees out with equipment for two weeks to restore the cemetery.
“They cleaned everything and it was magnificent,” said Card.
The following May, historical markers went up on the road to mark the community of Rockville. Since then the cemetery, while still owned by the Cards, has been maintained by the town.
The cemetery was originally part of the Old School Baptist Church built in 1820 to accommodate a growing congregation. Thomas P. Terry served as pastor until his death in 1828 and was the first person buried in the cemetery. His family is also buried in the cemetery.
When a new church was built in Middletown in later years, the church building was abandoned and moved across the road where it was used as a barn.
The Cards’ home was originally a tavern owned by Vinson Clark, who is buried in the cemetery. Clark was one of 15 innkeepers in the town in 1824 and had one of the first liquor licenses. The tavern, located on the plan road stage route, was the central building of a group that included a general store, cooperage, smithy and wagon and shoemaker shops. Hemp and flax were grown on the farm and Clark’s wife braided straw for New York hat makers.
Today, the building serves as a home to Card, his wife, a horse, a dog and a few cats.
“It’s absolutely interesting to do research on them,” Card said of the men and women in the cemetery. “They had an impact on the community. A lot of times, people don’t appreciate history’s effect on the present and future.”
Card and former Town Supervisor Bob Brennan, among others, have researched the history of those buried in the little known cemetery. Card spread out a blizzard of paper on the table, the results of years of treasure hunting.
“Every story here is a contribution to what we are, both what we are now and possibly what we’ll be in the future,” said Card.
He pointed to a small portrait dating from the 1800s, stating that it was one of six Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery, George Godfrey, who had died in a death camp in Virginia.
Godfrey was one of hundreds of prisoners kept at Libby Prison, an infamous Confederate prison known for its overcrowding, disease, malnutrition and high mortality rate. At the time of Godfrey’s death, the prison reportedly had about 1,000 Union prisoners crammed inside its walls with rising death tolls due to food and supply shortages.
Card noted that Godfrey’s family must have had influence to get his body shipped home and buried in the cemetery.
The following year, the cemetery became home to the first murder victim in the town of Wallkill, Walter Gregory. In just two years, the town of Wallkill will mark the 150th anniversary.
Gregory was a well-to-do farmer and businessman, murdered in his own home in September, 1865. His wife testified that on the night of her husband’s death a man came to the house after they had retired and demanded money. The men argued and there were two gunshots. By the time she had run to the kitchen, her husband lay dead on the floor and the door was open, with no one in sight. She said the voice sounded like that of a picture salesman who had delivered pictures to the house earlier in the week.
There was a resulting manhunt for John Henderson, a traveling salesman from Ohio who had been staying at a boarding house in Middletown and disappeared the night of the murder. Local newspapers reported Henderson fled to Pennsylvania where he began working on a farm.
The sheriff had posted a $500 reward for his capture and before the week was out, Henderson was in custody. Police reported they found a “four-shooter in Henderson’s pantaloons” when he was arrested. Henderson was arraigned in Middletown, sent to Goshen Jail and eventually tried and convicted.
“They ended up hanging him in Goshen,” said Card, noting that Henderson was said to be buried in another cemetery, in Wawayanda.
Also among Card’s neighbors are the Carpenters, who ran through the woods to Goshen during the Revolutionary War to escape Indian attacks. The family apparently buried their dishes and valuables in the yard and fled. A Rockville blockhouse visible from the cemetery is reported to have held off marauding Indians in the Revolutionary War.
The cemetery is also home to a few Hortons (two of which served as supervisors for the town), as well as Clarks.
J.M. Horton, the founder of Horton Ice Cream which was later bought out by Borden, also once called the house on Van Burenville Road his home. Horton reportedly started out with $14, an overcoat and a metropolitan milk route. By the second decade of the 20th century, the Horton Ice Cream Company was the largest in the world.
While the cemetery reads as a “who’s who” of the town’s earlier centuries, it is still a cemetery and it wouldn’t be complete without its own splash of the weird and supernatural.
The star is Mary Penney, who rests in the cemetery’s only above-ground crypt.
“Through the years, everyone knew it as the Witch’s Cemetery,” said Card.
When he purchased the property, his curiosity got the better of him and he began to research her crypt. Card came to find out that what everyone took for a pentagram on her crypt was really the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic symbol.
“I couldn’t convince anyone though, so I don’t even argue anymore,” said Card.
Card said he went out to the cemetery one day and found a woman in a black cloak leaning over the crypt with something on a string, swinging it back and forth. She was holding what appeared to be a one-sided conversation—with Mary Penney. Card watched and when she was done, asked if Penney had responded.
The woman, who claimed to be a witch, replied that Penney had told her she died a horrible death.
Over the years the cemetery has been the host of numerous Halloween parties, and Tarot cards and roses have been left behind on Penney’s crypt. One night he even found a couple of girls dancing on top of it.
What took the cake was a listing on eBay about five years ago for the haunted and magical ring of Mary Penney, found by her crypt. The listing alleged Penney was crazy and into the occult, ran around naked and singing in her yard and ran through the streets chanting until one day her politician husband killed her.
Card did his own research and contacted the local library, but never found anything that substantiated the story. Nevertheless, he decided that “the story is so good, I’ll buy the ring.” When the seller learned his name however, that was the last he heard of them.
The cemetery has had overnight guests as well, including college students taking photos every hour from sunset to sunrise, as well as a team of ghost hunters who told him they didn’t find anything.
“We’ve had some interesting experiences,” commented Card.
Despite the odd moments, Card and his wife have loved living next door to the cemetery. They raised a family in the large house and kept horses, dogs and cats. Card has painted, sketched and assembled a slew of artworks from colorful paintings warming his studio to unique stone and wood art scattered around the property.
“It’s just been kind of a great old homestead,” said Card.
The couple is also forever tied to the cemetery, as it is where they scattered their son’s ashes a few years ago after he succumbed to a brain tumor.
Card said they began to think about what they wanted for their property when they themselves were gone. About seven years ago they had drawn up plans for an art and cultural center using the entire property which included a history museum and outdoor sculpture and art park.
While Card hasn’t abandoned the idea, he said they decided they needed to move forward now with the donation of the cemetery to the town.
“We just felt it belongs to them, has always belonged to them,” said Card. “I do not believe a cemetery should be in private hands.”
Wallkill Town Supervisor Dan Depew said all that remains to be done is completion of the title search. In the future, the town may use the cemetery for memorial services and the town’s historical association may use the section in front of it for book and antique sales.
At present, work is currently underway to repair damage done by recent hurricanes. Card said an over 200-year-old tree came down in one storm and took out a few tombstones, two columns and smashed the metal sign proclaiming the name of the cemetery into pieces.
Joe and Nick Biasi of Middletown volunteered their services and have rebuilt both of the stone columns. Nearby Maples Farm donated shrubs and bushes and the Town of Wallkill Historical Association donated funds to cement the broken tombstones back together.
Depew said Marty Memmelaar & Sons Welding, located just down the street, is hard at work finishing repairs to the sign and the town may hold a dedication ceremony at a future date.
By RACHEL COLEMAN