A new gravestone for one of Essex’s founding fathers, Abram Stevens, will be unveiled in the village cemetery later this month, the result of a joint effort between the local historical society and his own descendants.
The Sept. 15 dedication ceremony will feature speeches from members of the Essex Community Historical Society and Maureen Labenski, Stevens’ great-great-great granddaughter who helped fundraise for the gravestone by reaching out to to family far and wide.
“I feel so gratified that it was a community-wide project and a family project,” said Labenski, who now lives in Burlington. “It’s just very rewarding and heartwarming to me.”
Ann Gray, a member of the historical society, said the group initially looked into replacing the gravestone in 2011 but sidelined the cause after receiving a quote for more than $4,000 – a high price tag for the nonprofit group. Three years later, Labenski hosted a program about her family during the society’s “Tales and Treasures” series and donated her honorarium to the campaign.
From there, Labenski and her cousin, Harmony Cism, launched a letter campaign aimed at their fellow Stevens’ descendants, and soon, donations poured in from around the country, some from as far as Florida and California. The Essex Community Historical Society then applied for several grants and earned support from the town to raise just enough for the new marker.
The ceremony will mark the end of a long journey to rehab Stevens’ gravestone, to which time has not been kind. The stone is illegible from its perch on the small hill overlooking Main Street, a victim of two centuries of Vermont weather. But Stevens’ new gravestone – an exact replica that will sit in front of the original – features markings that at one time made its predecessor a sight to behold, filled intricate symbols that Labenski believes is a” tribute to his life and to the times.”
Stevens was one of the first to settle in present-day Essex Jct., coming here in 1784, a year after the first settlers are said to have arrived, according to ECHS member Tim Jerman. Stevens died in 1826 at the age of 70, an inscription on his gravestone says.
His service in the Revolutionary War also noted with an engraving that reads, “War of 1776,” and he’s believed to have fought alongside Gen. Richard Montgomery in 1775 at the Siege of Quebec, according to writings a town biennium published in the late 1800s.
The master builder’s impact is still felt throughout Essex and the surrounding areas. He’s known best locally for building the historic Lincoln Hall around 1820. The hall has evolved over the years, from a tavern in its early days to its current life as the home of the village’s municipal offices.
But Stevens’ final resting place shows remnants of a difficult life, too, one that saw the death of his 7-year-old daughter, Emely, who’s buried close to her parents. Labenski believes a daisy – considered by some as a symbol of innocence, often in reference to the death of a child – on his gravestone represents the young girl, who would have been her great-great aunt.
Stevens’ family remained in Essex for generations after his death – all the way down to Labenski’s mother – and has long been interested in history, Labenski said. She caught the bug, too, though her interest lies less in specifics and more in the story they tell.
“I don’t care about the dates or the marriages and deaths and births,” she said. “What I care about are these peoples lives. What they experienced and how they provided for those who were going to come after.”
“To keep that alive is important,” she later added. “It strengthens all families to know their past and the kind of people they have in their families.”
The unveiling of Stevens’ new gravestone will be at 2 p.m. on September 15 in the village cemetery.