Gordon Silleck cannot count the number of times that he and his family made the trip from New York to Falmouth.
Those trips, made throughout the 1960s, predated air conditioning, Interstate 95, fast-food rest stops and FM radio.
Several times a year, Katherine Wallace and Sidney Bayley Silleck of Scarsdale, N.Y., would pile their children Bayley, Kathy, Tom and Gordon into their Ford station wagon and head south—U.S. 1 all the way—to visit their “Nannie” and her daughters who lived in Falmouth at Clearview.
Besides the fond memories of Clearview on “300 acres of fun,” young Silleck, now 70, would also make a traditional pilgrimage to the Wallace family cemetery with his aunt Margaret.
Back then, getting to the 18th-century cemetery required a long trek through the deep woods of the former Liberty Hall farm, property once owned by Silleck’s distant relatives. It was a 975-acre tract of farmland off Truslow Road.
Today, most of the farmland has been cleared of trees and debris to make way for Liberty Hall Estates, a new housing development.
Sillick says the work appears to have disturbed the cemetery, and Stafford officials have cited the developer for violating the county ordinance on preserving cemeteries. An attorney for the developer says his client did not move any headstones or otherwise damage the cemetery.
Among those buried there are Revolutionary War veteran John Wallace, the original owner of Liberty Hall, and Silleck’s great-great-great-grandfather—John Wallace Silleck of Fredericksburg. Silleck’s great-grandfather Samuel Gordon Wallace, who served in the 30th Virginia Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, is also interred there.
The last burial in the cemetery occurred in 1926 and as time marched on, trees, roots and vines aggressively overtook the cemetery.
Silleck, who is also a direct descendent of Samuel Gordon of Kenmore, recently retired as a logistics engineer at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Connecticut. He then moved to Fredericksburg and decided to take on the overgrown family cemetery as his post-retirement project.
“I contacted people to see what my rights were, what the law was, what I can do, what I can’t do,” said Silleck. “It wasn’t but two to three weeks after that, a friend told me there was work going on there and asked if I was doing it.”
Silleck told his friend he didn’t know anything about it.
He drove to the Stafford cemetery and found a completely barren landscape. It appeared to Silleck as if heavy machinery was used to clear the site, and some of the headstones appeared to be in the wrong place.
He noted other discrepancies.
“When I saw it, it was completely devoid of all trees and branches,” said Silleck. “The dirt had been dug to about four inches and graded across the whole cemetery. Stones were sitting at all angles, there were footstones that didn’t match the headstones and it looked terrible. There was a debris pile which had marble and granite in it which couldn’t have come from anywhere else but the cemetery.”
DISPUTE OVER DAMAGE
According to county records, photographs of the cemetery in 2010 show fallen trees, overgrown vegetation, and head and footstones upright at the appropriate grave sites.
But county officials report that photos taken in March show all vegetation removed from the site, visible track marks from equipment or vehicles throughout the site, portions of an antique wrought iron fence that once surrounded the cemetery removed and left twisted and leaning on a headstone, headstones pulled from the ground and no temporary fence in place.
The developer who owns the property—Barrie Peterson of Jumping Branch Farms LLC—is clearing land on the former farm for the new home sites. Peterson’s attorney claims his client did not move any of the headstones and no grading of the site occurred.
But county officials allege Peterson moved headstones, failed to maintain the cemetery, and graded—or disturbed the land—within a 35-foot buffer zone at the rural family cemetery.
In April, the county sent Peterson a “Notice of Violation” that included nine alleged violations that occurred in and around the Wallace Cemetery.
A county report stated “The disturbed soil, the removed vegetation, concrete slabs, and wrought iron fence, the headstones/footstones pulled from the ground and the impermissible grading are just a few examples of activities which are a violation of Sec. 28-39(o).”
In late June, Peterson appealed those violations with Stafford County’s Board of Zoning Appeals, but three violations remain.
According to Clark Leming, Peterson’s attorney, “By the time we got to the BZA, five or six of the issues were resolved and not argued at the BZA.” Peterson’s attorney denies that his client disturbed or moved any headstones in the cemetery.
“If it will resolve the matter, he’s happy to do what’s necessary, but he denies that there was any movement of the headstones,” said Leming.
Peterson’s attorney also claims no mechanical grading occurred in the cemetery.
“Nobody graded anything,” said Leming. “I don’t think anybody thinks anybody did. I think the conjecture is that because there is the tire track of machinery in that 35-foot buffer that somehow that machinery got into the cemetery itself, and that is denied as well.”
Leming also said there is a “lack of maintenance” allegation remaining, which he and his client must also address—specifically involving the old iron fencing that once surrounded the cemetery.
“The fences were down in 2014 when the property was purchased,” said Leming. “Whether additional fences have fallen over, Mr. Peterson doesn’t know.”
Leming said the petition filed with the circuit court will clarify what issues the appeal pertains to.
“We will be filing an appeal of the BZA’s decision and let the circuit court look at these issues at some point in the future,” said Leming. “Meanwhile, we’ll try to work with the county to resolve things to the county’s satisfaction, but Mr. Peterson is emphatic at this point that this is largely fabrication, and there is no evidence of any wrongdoing here.”
It is not uncommon for building contractors—or anyone venturing outdoors in Stafford—to come across rural, forgotten cemeteries. Likewise, rural Stafford homeowners could be a short distance from a forgotten cemetery on their property without ever discovering it.
Unfortunately, some of these cemeteries are not discovered until it’s too late.
Back in 2008, a cemetery parcel was inadvertently paved over during a parking lot expansion, but in that case, there was some confusion over whether or not the graves had been relocated.
Another case in 2009 occurred when a property owner near Stafford courthouse wanted to move interred remains from one family cemetery to another to make way for an office development.
Archaeologists who planned to excavate those remains found headstones at the cemetery, but no remains were interred there. A search of county records revealed the remains were moved in 1966 to make way for the new interstate. Unfortunately, no records were kept at that time as to where those remains were reinterred.
Stafford’s Cemetery Committee tries to prevent incidents like this from occurring in the first place by cataloging every cemetery in the county.
Anita Dodd, president of the committee, said when land is sold in the county, there are ordinances that require the developer to help preserve the cemetery.
Dodd, whose organization has recorded over 550 family cemeteries throughout the county, maintains a database that could help developers, homeowners and historians preserve the history of the county. Dodd encourages anyone with information on rural cemeteries to contact her organization to ensure the cemetery is catalogued and documented.
For now, Silleck would like to see his relatives’ cemetery restored as best as possible and “move beyond the issue of what happened,” he said.
“The violations can be put aside if the owner simply restores the cemetery and does the whole job now,” Silleck said. “It is disgraceful what was done, but we should move on and correct the damage.
“I don’t care about the violations—that’s up to the lawyers. The end result should be a respectful cemetery, and that’s all I care about. Whether he’s willing to do that or not is an open question for now.”