By Morgan Bunn
When the Old Stone Church was first built in 1796, it stood on the farthest edges of the western boundary of Lewisburg in a great grove of trees that enveloped much of the outlying areas of town.
The original entrance to the Old Stone Church was then located on the opposite side of the present day Church Street entrance and the early members of the congregation would have made their approach from Market Street, now known as Court Street. There would have been no graves in this approach to the church doors at that time as all the earliest burials occurred on the south side of the churchyard. The shadows of the original old doors and windows can still be seen, ghosts of the past, and yet an old carriage path, that once meandered through the wooded approach, carrying members up to the church, is long forgotten, though the footprint of the old path can still be seen today and it leads straight to the potter’s lost plot.
Samuel S. Smith was born in 1806 in Rockingham County, VA. Little is known about Smith’s early life except that he was living in Lewisburg by 1829 when he married Mary Winall, a daughter of Samuel and Nancy (Stuart) Winall. In 1836, Smith purchased 25 acres of land lying on both sides of the old James River and Kanawha turnpike (present day Washington Street). Shortly after buying the property, Smith, a potter and coppersmith by trade, built a house on the property and a pottery just over a hill behind the house. Besides being a potter, Smith also served twice as the town postmaster from 1837 until 1841 and from 1843 until his death in 1857 when his wife temporarily assumed his duties. Little is known about the pottery Smith produced, but clues to the scope of Smith’s work may have been uncovered within the Old Stone Cemetery.
Smith and his wife had at least nine children with two boys dying in infancy, Benjamin and George Winall Smith. Both boys were buried in a small family plot lying just off the carriage path in the cemetery. Samuel Smith died in March 1857, at the age of 50, from an attack of apoplexy, and was buried with his two young sons. In 1871, a daughter, Jennie, died and is believed to have been buried within the plot with her father and brothers. Shortly after the Civil War, Mary Winall Smith and her surviving children sold the family home, which still stands today, and moved to Alderson.
Based on extensive research and a full survey of the cemetery, it has been determined that the tombstones of Samuel Smith and his three children were among the 150 grave markers lost from the cemetery between 1885 and 1960. Tombstones become lost for a variety of reasons: natural aging, tree damage, roaming animals, improper installation and for many cemeteries, Old Stone included, damage caused by the Civil War. However, when an entire family plot ceases to exist, with no evidence left behind, then it can be assumed that something horrific occurred. So what happened to the Smith plot?
In June 2016, while working in the cemetery, a small one inch piece of concrete was spotted rising out of the ground from inside a partially curbed plot (the stone, brick or concrete work that is normally a boundary for a cemetery plot or bed); this piece was then carefully extracted from the ground. That one small piece of concrete (a 12 x 12 clay base about eight inches in height) was the beginning of a very rare cemetery find – a cemetery trash or debris spot. Throughout the summer of 2016, in the small plot, measuring about eight feet wide and possibly as much as 12 feet long, over 100 pieces of broken stone pieces were removed, along with a full panel of the original Victorian iron fence that once surrounded the plot. Additionally, two full sandstone footstones, dating from 1840 and 1857 and in amazing condition, were also removed. After all the uncovered pieces were cleaned and cataloged and reassembly began, it became apparent that some sort of columns with an urn design once stood in the plot. The columns to date bear no evidence or inscription of having served as memorial stones, and until the work is complete, the mystery remains as to the purpose of the odd columns. Could they have been used to “advertise” Smith’s skills as a potter or could they have been used to hold flowers or to flank either side of the entrance to the plot?
Hopefully, in time, some of these questions can be answered and some guess can be made to what really happened to destroy the Smith plot. The excavation of the plot will continue in the coming weeks in hopes of discovering more on the mystery of the potter’s lost plot and in time the entire plot will be restored. Other pieces of foot and headstones recovered from this plot will be reassembled during a hands-on cemetery repair workshop being offered this summer by the Friends of the Old Stone Cemetery. There is also an upcoming cleaning workshop scheduled for Saturday, May 20, in which more of the uncovered treasures will be cleaned. In addition to the continued work on the Smith plot, the Trustees of the Cemetery will be featuring cemetery tours on select Friday evenings and Saturday mornings throughout the summer and fall months that will highlight stories like The Potter’s Lost Plot. For information on the Smith plot along with all the ongoing restoration work, workshops and cemetery events happening in the cemetery, please visit Friends of Old Stone Cemetery on Facebook.