October 21, 2021

Search for the past reveals treasures

A Grave Adventure

Photos by Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

Ann Dexter near James Hodgson’s grave in Morgan Hill State Forest in Fabius.

Anita Wright never forgot the grave stone semi encircled by a pine tree in a small family burial ground in Fabius.

That was 25 to 30 years ago.

She told me about it two years ago. It’s been nestled in my imagination ever since.

Finally, I went off the beaten path to see this grave — and discovered a whole lot more — an entry into the Finger Lakes Trail System, Tinker Falls, Labrador Hollow Unique Area, Poole’s Drive-In in Truxton, and the enthusiasm of area historians.

Wright, a retired research associate at the Cortland County Historical Society, had been canvassing cemeteries with fellow historian Mary Dexter when she saw the small private burial ground of the Hodgsons.

It’s off Shackham Road in the Morgan Hill State Forest. Maybe 200 yards downhill. Next to the 1828 marker of Lydia Hodgson, a massive white pine tree had grown up — seemingly embracing the marker.

“It’s just amazing that it survived,” Wright said. “When you see the date on the stone and this is (intact) and encircled by a tree!”

Tinker Falls, within the Labrador Hollow State Preserve, which is between Fabius and Truxton.

A dimension of time

Step into the Cortland County Historical Society and you step into another dimension. Researchers amplify reality. They delve, unearth and tap and a faded marker becomes special.

Wright whipped through pages of cemetery records in tomes that lined the walls at the society and pointed to the locale of the Hodgsons’ graves.

A Hodgson family file at the 25 Homer Ave., society says: “The stones were standing and easily readable … but, the tree has grown around one stone,” according to an unnamed source in 1964.

“Lydia, wife of John Hodgson, died in 1828 at the age of 63,” is written on the marker by the tree. There’s a reference to a pond, a cellar wall and fruit trees. A photo taken in 1964 shows Lydia Hodgson’s grave stone next to a white pine.

The file also had a piece written by Bob Peel in July 10, 1988, edition of the Syracuse Herald-American about the grave: “Tombstone held up by white pine for more than 150 years.” Its picture looked like the 1964 picture at the society.

The question, 190 years later: What’s the condition of the stone today? Would it be wrapped inside the tree? Could it be seen?

Ann Dexter of Cortland, a member of the Cortland Historical Society, also had been at the Hodgson burial ground.

“You go up 91, past Labrador Mountain, make a right on Shackham Road. Lydia Hodgson is in a tree,” Ann Dexter says. “I’ll take you.”

Why Shackham?

A June 2 rendezvous is agreed upon. Dexter lends me history books in a cloth bag as she gets in the truck. She had a garage sale the day before — made more than $700— and one fellow out of the blue started talking about Shackham Road, she said.

“Who is this guy?” I say.

“I don’t know. He said the road was named Shackham because they used to hang pork in shacks to dry out.” This idea is backed by the book “Shackham,” written by Emily Estey, a columnist in the Syracuse Post-Standard. It was in the cloth bag.

“How come you’re into this?” I ask Dexter.

“Because I want to know who I am. Where I come from.”

We get onto Shackham Road. Dexter peers into Morgan Hill State Forest. The road is empty. There are only trees out there.

“It can’t be here, this is a ridge, no, no … OK slow down,” Dexter says. She is looking for a white sign. But a white sign does not exist.

Into the trees

Into Onondaga County, past the ridge area and by the Finger Lakes Trail system is a parked car. We alight and go down a clear trail through forest. “Moss grows on the north side,” Dexter says. “Do you know your directions? Where’s east? West?”

It’s a gray day and we’re surrounded by trees. I’m not getting a feel for the sun.

“Uhhhh — duh. East over here?”

We hit a narrow, rocky trail and take it slow.

“I don’t want to break a hip,” says Dexter, a retired nurse.

“Herb Robert,” she says, pointing to a wild flower. “That’s a pink flower.”

“There’s an apple tree. You see apple trees, somebody’s lived here,” Dexter says. “This was somebody’s farm … Look at that flox. It’s pink and white. I’ve never seen that.”

We’re going deeper into the woods, with bushes, wild flowers, pines, deciduous trees and ferns. No people. For the first time, I think: What if we can’t find the grave?”

“It’ has been 20 years since I have been here,” Dexter warns.

“There’s a pine tree!” Dexter says. We come upon a pond, and a beaver dam. But the pine tree is not our tree. We go over rocks and stream and culvert to another stand of trees.

Ann Dexter looks at the foot stone of Lydia Hodgson’s grave in Morgan Hill State Forest.

The discovery

We turn a corner and under the arms of the pine, suddenly, there are the graves.

It’s exactly like that 1964 photo. Lydia’s grave is right up next to that tree, intact. Two others are beside it.

“Lydia Hodgson, died, circa 1828,” Dexter reads.

Lydia’s grave has two markers. The larger’s writing faces the bark. A small foot stone was several feet away.

“Her head’s up there and her foot’s down there,” Dexter says.

The site has three graves:
• Lydia, wife of John Hodgson, who died at 63 in 1828.
• James Hodgson, who died at 42 in 1843.
• Ira Hodgson, who died in 1819 at age 39.

Ira’s stone lays in the ground. James appears to be buried over him, with upright stones, next to Lydia’s.

Two young people emerge on the trail, students at SUNY Oswego. The boy is Vor Lowscuan of Amsterdam, N.Y., and the girl is Ariana Hubbard of Syracuse.

Dexter tells the pair what we are up to. But when she hears Ariana is a Hubbard: “You have to come to Cortland!” Dexter enthuses.

“I belong to the Association of Gravestone Studies. An original settler in Cortland was Jonathan Hubbard! He was buried in 1806. I cleaned up that stone!”

The girl was impressed at a possible ancestor.

Returning to the world

We return to the car and proceed to visit a cemetery across from Labrador Mountain on Route 91, to see if there are any Hodgson markers there. There is one: Philan, wife of James Hodgson, died in 1842 at age 39. She was buried in the bigger cemetery while her husband was in the private family plot. They died a year apart. Another mystery.

Dexter shows me Tinker Falls, the Labrador Hollow Unique Area and points out where the hang gliders take off. She has stories of taking off with Wright on adventures into cemeteries, their car breaking down in the middle of nowhere.

“I am excited about people who get excited about being in Cortland County who weren’t natives of the town,” Dexter says. “Anita (from Long Island) knows more about Cortland County than me.”

She has stories of her daughter, Kate and her grandkids at Tinker Falls. She has stories of other historians: her sister, Mary, Mary Ann Kane, Shirley Heppell, Joan Siedenburg, all associated with the historical society.

It’s another world.