Cemetery Musings

“If in heaven
There is no wit
You’ll know she went
To hell for it.”

Cemeteries have fascinated me ever since the days when I would accompany my mother and aunt to place geraniums on the family graves for Memorial Day. As anyone knows who has taken Bonnie Snow’s cemetery tour, burial grounds give one a sense of connection with our history.


The Orleans Cemetery is the final resting place of Isaac Snow, who was instrumental in naming the town and who was our last surviving Revolutionary War veteran. Also interred here are “Uncle Harvey” Sparrow, who served in the War of 1812, and Webster Rogers, the longest-lived of our Spanish-American war veterans. Webster’s daughter, Emma Augusta Rogers, known as “Emma Gusty”, made her own graduation dress, but her father would not allow her to attend the ceremony. She vowed to be buried in the dress, and she was, over 70 years later!


One of my family graves has a tragic story. My great-aunt Myrtice Chase, wife of my great-uncle Ernie, was a young wife of 23, having her first child. According to family lore, she was given ether, which her lungs could not tolerate; she died and the baby died with her. She was buried with the baby still in utero, and her husband never knew if it would have been a son or a daughter. 

A New England Grave Yard in the Fall.

On a happier note, the cemetery holds the remains of Dr Claude Heaton, who delivered Margaret Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. Apparently, Mead wanted either a home birth or natural childbirth or both, and Dr Heaton was the only physician who would agree to her wishes. Mother and daughter came through the experience in good health. as she relates in her autobiography.

At the top of the hill is Barna Sprague’s gravestone, with the face of a dog carved into each of the top corners. These canine faces represent her two yellow Labs, Breeze and Daisy; Barna died while trying to rescue Breeze from a fire which destroyed her home. (Daisy escaped.) It was typical of Barna to risk her life for a beloved pet; her heart brimmed with compassion for animals.


But cemeteries can also hold unexpected flashes of humor. Consider the stone of John and Grace Lyons. She was the first to pass, and her epitaph reads, “If in heaven/There is no wit/You’ll know she went/ To hell for it.” After his death much later, his epitaph was inscribed: “Thirty years later/Still loving his Grace,/He hoped to meet her/Either place!”


I encourage everyone to take a walk in a cemetery. There is always much to be learned.

Mary E. McDermott is a 13th-generation Cape Codder living in Orleans. She worked for 17 years in the Orleans Assessor’s Office and 23 years as a commercial insurance broker at Pike Insurance Agency. She has been a justice of the peace to solemnize marriages since 1976 and has previously published two books of poetry, Tapestry and Handle with Care. Her poems have appeared in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor.

Sea Crow Press has two books about Cape Cod.

read more about Old Orleans in Mary E. McDermott’s new book

take some poetry to the beach with Moon Tide by Mary Petiet

Orleans Street Names

Every street name has its story!

Who remembers the original name of Tonset Road Extension? It was Stone Crusher Road because the machine used to crush stones for road construction had been located there.


Beriah Doane of East Orleans had a spring where people would often go to get fresh water; it was commonly known as “Beriah’s spring.” That’s how Briar Spring Road got its name! This information was imparted to me by the late realtor Tod Rattle.


Uncle Harvey’s Way honors Harvey Sparrow, who served in the War of 1812. He and his wife, Betsey, are interred in the Orleans Cemetery. 

A street scene in Orleans on Cape Cod. Photo by John Phelan


Captain Linnell Road was named for Captain Ebenezer Harding Linnell, who built and lived in the mansion formerly occupied by the Captain Linnell House restaurant near Skaket Beach. There is a monument to Captain Linnell in the cemetery, but his body was claimed by the sea on an ill-fated voyage. 


Aunt Polly’s Way commemorates Mary White Talbot, fondly known as Aunt Polly. She was the sister of Sara White Johnstone, who operated the outdoor Greenwood Theatre with her husband, William Bard Johnstone. The Johnstones and Whites were instrumental in founding the Church of the Holy Spirit on Monument Road, not far from where they lived.


Winslow Drive recalls the Winslow family, who owned a large amount of property in South Orleans. They were the owners of United Shoe Machinery in Boston.


In the Weeset section of Tonset is Sage’s Way, which honors Albert Snow, a local historian who was nicknamed the Sage of Weeset.


Eldredge Park Way reflects the name of the adjacent ball field. When the Orleans town nurse had her office in the elementary school, the first listing under “Town of Orleans” in the phone book was “Nurse Eldredge Park Way.”

Mail addressed to the Town at “Nurse Eldredge Park Way” would occasionally arrive at Town Hall! I suppose the writers must have wondered who the heroic Nurse Eldredge had been!


Every street name has its story!

Read more stories about Cape Cod in Mary McDermott’s book Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town from Sea Crow Press.

Mary E. McDermott is a 13th-generation Cape Codder living in Orleans. She worked for 17 years in the Orleans Assessor’s Office and 23 years as a commercial insurance broker at Pike Insurance Agency. She has been a justice of the peace to solemnize marriages since 1976 and has previously published two books of poetry, Tapestry and Handle with Care. Her poems have appeared in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor.

What Was School Like on Old Cape Cod?

The Education of an Orleans Girl.

Sea Crow Press author Mary E. McDermott reminisces about student life in her beloved home town Orleans. Her new book, Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town, preserves stories of local life in simpler times.


The lives of Orleans baby boomers were influenced by a succession of teachers, all of whom had distinct personalities and who played various roles in shaping our education.

Our first-grade teacher, Mrs Eldredge, had high standards and an often-sharp tongue, but impeccable taste in literature. She introduced the class to Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit and Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, an introduction for which I am still grateful.

Third grade’s Mrs Wilcox (later Mrs Wright), had a wonderful sense of fun and humor, as well as empathy. On one hot day, someone from another grade brought her a bottle of Pepsi, which she would not drink in our thirsty presence. A nature enthusiast who lived near the school, she once walked the entire class over to her house at lunchtime to watch the birds at her feeders. 
On winter afternoons, an upperclassman would come by with a report as to which ponds were safe to skate on. Ice House Pond off Brick Hill Road in East Orleans—better known as “the pond behind Charlie Moore’s” —was usually among them.

Orleans High School back in the day.

The town’s first Catholic priest, Father James Lynch, had long dreamed of opening a parochial school, and his dream came true. The school building, which held grades from kindergarten through eighth, is now home to the St Joan of Arc thrift shop. A group of the Sisters of Divine Providence from Pennsylvania came to teach. Some, like Sister Georgette and Sister Marianne, were gentle souls who truly loved children. Others, who shall remain nameless, ruled by the ruler across the knuckles and soul-searing insults. But they all taught us to study hard; every afternoon, our book bags were heavy with homework. 

When I entered high school in 1960, the district had regionalized to include Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet. Brewster students could choose to attend Nauset or Dennis-Yarmouth, and those from Truro could come to Nauset or go to Provincetown, which today is part of the Nauset region. A few of the Wellfleet boys were jokers, and their jokes were not always funny. A few years ago, I asked one of them why they had picked on people, and he replied, “Because it was our first time on someone else’s turf, and we were scared.” That was a revelation.

The faculty included some first-rate teachers with knowledge and wit. English teacher Miss Elisabeth Hooker founded the Archy Club, named for the cockroach in Archy and Mehitabel; members could come in early for help with spelling and punctuation. Dr Stewart Brooks, who taught Latin and ancient history, invented the holiday Egredior Day, which fell on March fourth, because egredior in Latin means march forth. Mrs Betty Murphy made the French language a lot of fun and also participated as a cheerleader at the annual student-faculty basketball game. Mrs Frances Mayfarth knew that her juniors would not be able to focus on English the day before Christmas vacation, so she had us put our desks in a circle and take turns relating how we learned that there was no Santa Claus.

We may have come from a small-town setting, but we were sent into the world with as fine a background as could be found anywhere!

Mary E. McDermott is a 13th-generation Cape Codder living in Orleans. She worked for 17 years in the Orleans Assessor’s Office and 23 years as a commercial insurance broker at Pike Insurance Agency. She has been a justice of the peace to solemnize marriages since 1976 and has previously published two books of poetry, Tapestry and Handle with Care. Her poems have appeared in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor.

Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town, is available now wherever good books are sold, especially your local book store.

What was life like on Old Cape Cod?

Even as a child, I knew Orleans was unique.

Sea Crow Press author Mary E. McDermott reminisces about life in her beloved home town Orleans. Her new book, Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town, preserves stories of local life in simpler times.

Even as a child, I knew Orleans was unique.

Almost across the street from my home was a private residence which had originally been the town almshouse; it is now the site of the police station. Back then, the fire and police departments shared quarters on Main Street. The fire whistle was tested daily at noon. When it blew for a fire, the number of short and long blasts indicated the area of town where the fire was located. Nearly every household had a card, sponsored by Ellis’ Market, which explained the different codes; when the whistle sounded, the card was eagerly consulted!

Freight trains still ran through town, and it was a treat to go to Depot Square (now part of Old Colony Way) and watch the train come in.

Summer held additional treats: each year, the American Legion sponsored a carnival for a week. The carnivals traveled from town to town and were the delight of all the kids and many adults as well. 

A glimpse inside Old Orleans

Another seasonal treat was to go to Philbrick’s Snack Shack at Nauset Beach for fried clams or scallops and their incomparable onion rings. Dessert might be an ice cream cone from Pal’s or Howard Johnson’s (nobody called it HoJo’s then).

Orleans was home to some interesting individuals. I remember Mrs Carter, who had a sort of boutique on Main Street and always went barefoot. In my mind’s eye is a picture of her crossing the street, wearing a beautiful blue dress, with nothing between her soles and the pavement. 

For some time, friends had been urging me to preserve some of my memories, especially those concerning my mother, a 12th-generation native, and thus was born Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town. I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Mary E. McDermott is a 13th-generation Cape Codder living in Orleans. She worked for 17 years in the Orleans Assessor’s Office and 23 years as a commercial insurance broker at Pike Insurance Agency. She has been a justice of the peace to solemnize marriages since 1976 and has previously published two books of poetry, Tapestry and Handle with Care. Her poems have appeared in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor.

Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town, is available now wherever good books are sold, especially your local book store.

JOIN SEA CROW PRESS IN WELCOMING AUTHOR MARY E. McDERMOTT

A new book about Cape Cod from Sea Crow Press!

Mary E. McDermott is a 13th generation Cape Codder. Her stories are time capsules transporting readers to an earlier, pre-development Cape Cod past.

What was life like on old Cape Cod?

Lunch counters. Working the telephone switchboard. A song called Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs Murphy’s Chowder. Love during World War II. Hurricanes. A time when scarlet fever could kill, doctors made house calls, and locals brushed shoulders with celebrities such as Anaīs Nin and Dr. Scholl in Provincetown. 

These and other poignant memories of a Cape Cod town are preserved in the stories of an Orleans family bringing local characters and simpler times to life. Told in vignettes spanning from the 1920s to the Baby Boom, these stories preserve the grit and charm of Old Cape Cod.

Old Orleans: Memories of a Cape Cod Town is living history at its best. This quiet read brings the past to life now and for future generations.

About Mary E. McDermott

Mary E. McDermott is a 13th-generation Cape Codder living in Orleans. She worked for 17 years in the Orleans Assessor’s Office and 23 years as a commercial insurance broker at Pike Insurance Agency. She has been a justice of the peace to solemnize marriages since 1976 and has previously published two books of poetry, Tapestry and Handle with Care. Her poems have appeared in several publications including the Christian Science Monitor.