GRAVE RESPONSIBILITY: A mighty oak guards Johnston's historic Children’s Cemetery

By RORY SCHULER
Posted 7/23/21

A row of tiny headstones secluded in the woods of Snake Den State Park has been nicknamed “The Children’s Cemetery.”

Six tiny markers stood in a row (although one is now just a …

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GRAVE RESPONSIBILITY: A mighty oak guards Johnston's historic Children’s Cemetery

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A row of tiny headstones secluded in the woods of Snake Den State Park has been nicknamed “The Children’s Cemetery.”

Six tiny markers stood in a row (although one is now just a small hole; a broken stone is currently in the custody of the Johnston Historical Society’s Cemetery Committee, under repair).

The children all died young, in their first year of life.

They were the sons and daughters of Harris Brown and his wife Lavina Place.

Their tiny bodies were laid to rest in Johnston Historical Cemetery No. 93.

Overgrown shrubs and gnarled old trees hide the burial ground.

“It’s almost better that you can’t see these from the path,” said Johnston Historical Society President Elise Carlson. “Oh, there it is.”

Carlson took a left off a small road used by the African Alliance of Rhode Island, a group that farms land in a small portion of the state park.

“These are pretty well hidden,” Carlson said, pushing thorny vines and gripping branches out of the way.

Bordered by a deteriorating snow fence of unknown origin, six graves have been planted in a row at the base of a mighty oak tree.

The funerals were likely held when the tree was barely a sapling.

The distance between the headstones and tiny footstones is a mere couple feet, illustrating the diminutive size of the lost souls interred in the ground.

Harris Brown lived from 1815-1888, outliving six of his eight children, and his wife, who died in 1865.

“Harris Brown was born March 19, 1815, in the town of Johnston, was reared there, and received such educational advantages as were common to the youth of the period,” according to the 1908 book “Representative Men and Old Families of RI” (the book can be found in the Johnston Historical Society’s collection).

“In his youth he learned the trade of a millwright and later that of a wheelwright, continuing to follow the latter vocation all his life, for nearly or quite 45 years being thus employed in the town of Olneyville, where he became known to a wide and varied acquaintance,” according to the book.

The Olneyville neighborhood, now within the Providence city limits, was once a section of Johnston.

“His honesty was proverbial, his word his bond, his moral life as clean and irreproachable as his business integrity,” according to “Representative Men.” “Though he did not make friends and acquaintances rapidly he built well, and none knew him but to respect him.”

The book details Brown’s lack of political aspiration.

“In his manner he was quiet and unassuming, but he took much interest in the affairs of his community and was repeatedly sought as a candidate for office, though he turned a deaf ear to such solicitations except in one instance, when he ran on an independent ticket with little or no hope of election and polled a most satisfactory vote, running much ahead of his ticket,” according to “Representative Men.”

Harris attended the Free Will Baptist Church, and was described as “a man slightly under medium height but of strong frame, and weighed over 200 pounds throughout his mature life.”

“He had great strength, but his great physical ruggedness was no more remarkable than his strong character, and both were equally recognized and respected,” according to “Representative Men.” “He was a man singularly attached to his home and devoted to his duty, and throughout his long and useful career he was always to be found at his place of business during working hours and at his home during his leisure time.”

Brown’s was first married on Nov. 8, 1838, to Lavina Place.

Place was born Dec. 12, 1818, the daughter of Hazzard and Phebe Place.

After she died 1865, Brown eventually remarried.

“For his second wife he married Susan P. Phillips, who was born Dec. 21, 1817, and who survives him, Mr. Brown, having passed away Sept. 20, 1888,” according to “Representative Men.” “Though 90 years old Mrs. Brown is remarkably well preserved, and both mentally and physically as active as many who are many years her junior.”

Although the spellings and exact number of his children differs in historical texts, from the granite tombstones, all of the children were the result of Brown’s first marriage.

Two survived to adulthood: Chauncey, born Nov. 15, 1843, went on to reside in Voluntown, Conn.; and Charles, born Nov. 8, 1858, lived in Providence.

While living in Johnston, Harris and Lavina lost six children and buried them side-by-side in the Children’s Cemetery, Johnston Historical Cemetery No. 93: George Henry, born June 13, 1839, died Aug. 28, 1839; Mary Elizabeth, born May 3, 1840, died July 26, 1840; Mary Elizabeth, born and died some time in 1848; Margaret (or Maryett), born Dec. 31, 1846, died May 10, 1849; Antoinette, twin of Margaret, died March 24, 1849; and Lester, born Oct. 16, 1850, died Nov.8, 1850.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment of a weekly series looking into the conditions and history of the town’s nearly 100 historic cemeteries. The Johnston Historical Society needs help. Anybody interested in volunteering to help maintain an old cemetery in town, by mowing the grass and/or clearing weeds and debris, is urged to contact the Society by calling 401-231-3380.

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