LOWELL — Walk across the Brunswick Bowling Alley parking lot, through what used to be a drive-in movie theater and venture into the thick brambles until you see a trail of broken headstones.
Peel the layers of time away from this quiet spot nestled between Varnum Avenue and Pawtucket Boulevard, to find the resting place of some of Dracut’s earliest citizens.
Though now surrounded by Lowell, Claypit Cemetery, Dracut’s oldest, is a forgotten final resting place for at least 25 people.
Some of the graves date back to the late 1700s, while others belong to soldiers of the Civil and Revolutionary wars.
Life goes on outside the borders of the forest as people come and go through the doors of the bowling alley, oblivious to the chunk of history resting less than 50 feet away.
Unfortunately, most of the headstones have been broken and scattered by vandals or grave robbers over the years. The stone perimeters of several family plots can still be made out. And even though the remaining grave sites are in poor condition, names and loving messages are still legible on many.
“In Loving Memory of Leah, wife of Moses B. Colburn,” reads one stone. “Died April 27, 1837.”
Every 10 years or so, groups of concerned citizens take on the chore of cleaning up the area and trampling down a small path for easier access. And each time, the cemetery is soon enveloped by nature again. Trees and bushes slowly regrow over the trampled path, moss covers the aged graves and the remains beneath are forgotten while life goes on around them.
Since February, Rebecca Duda, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Lakeview Junior High School, has been digging through dusty town records and searching state archives to find out just who is buried at Claypit.
Duda is not alone on her quest. After realizing the project would take longer than expected, she recruited two 8th grade students, Emily Fox and Megan Fawcett, to assist in the research.
She also called on co-worker Kevin McGrath and Dean Eastman, her former history teacher at Beverly High School, for help on the project.
“It started as a cleanup project, then we discovered a little piece of African- American history buried out there,” Duda said.
It is possible that the remains of Barzillai Lew, an African-American Revolutionary War soldier, are in one of the many unmarked graves, according to Duda. She intends to prove this theory. Since February, she has been searching town records looking for a way to link Lew to the burial ground. Records show that several of his family members were buried at the Claypit Cemetery.
Duda and her team reviewed town census records from 1790 to 1850 and are compiling a database of all African-Americans who settled in Dracut during those years in hopes of finding the missing link.
“Not much has been done with African-American history in Dracut,” said Duda.
Since African-Americans often had unmarked graves, it is difficult to locate an exact burial plot.
Duda and her research team hope that by putting names with the headstones and outlining the historical significance of the cemetery, they will spark some interest and develop a long-term maintenance plan for the burial ground.
“I want to do something more permanent. So many people have gone in there and cleaned it up only to have it forgotten again,” said Duda.
“My family thinks I’m crazy. They keep asking me why?” said Duda. “I just feel like it’s the right thing to do, to remember these people once and for all.”
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