ON THE SCENE: Quest for 2 unmarked Averyville cemeteries
Are there two unmarked cemeteries in Averyville? The question was raised by Rose Wenzler, the 11-year-old publisher, editor and sole correspondent of the hand-written, illustrated and delivered Averyville Press in Lake Placid.
“I started the Averyville Press because I have a lot of books, I like to read and because I wanted a job,” said Rose. “I wanted a paper route.”
Her single-sheet, double-sided paper is typically written on Sundays, photocopied by her father on Mondays and delivered on Tuesdays with the help of helmeted bike-riding brothers and sisters. The paper route is confined mainly to those living on the southwest side of the Chubb River on Averyville Road. Yet within the paper’s size and territory constraints, it provides breaking news and stimulating content often missed by the more prominent media outlets, be they print, radio or television.
A case in point, in an early edition, Rose highlighted the long-held regional rumor that there’s an unmarked 19th century cemetery containing the remains of Black settlers and possibly Black visitors to North Elba. Her edition raised the additional question as to the whereabouts of the unmarked Avery cemetery for whom the neighborhood is named.
On Tuesday, June 1, Rose, five of her six siblings and mom were joined by an archeologist, environmental scientist, several historians and neighbors, and this writer to seek out the answers. The seekers were armed with a well-thumbed copy of “The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid,” the collected writings of former town Historian Mary MacKenzie edited by Lee Manchester, and a map provided by Serge Lussi along with one created by the late Jack Vitvitsky.
The initial center of the village of Lake Placid and town of North Elba was not located between the Town Hall and One Main Park, but at the bottom of Mill Hill and around Mill and Lower Mill Pond where Archibald McIntyre established his iron works in 1811. Three years after the 1816 “Year Without Summer,” Simon Avery arrived with his family, having purchased the 160-acre Great Lot 52 in Township 12 from the state. The lot is located 3 miles southwest of Old Military Road, the area where the Wenzlers live.
Not surprisingly, the neighborhood was soon known as Averyville as other early settlers joined them, such as my ancestors, the Alfords, for whom Alford Pond and Alford Mountain are named. Though several moved to Saranac Lake, many of Avery’s children and grandchildren remained in Averyville. As only two are buried in the North Elba Cemetery, several are understood to be buried in a family plot near Simon Avery’s cabin, a site now occupied by the former home of Alan McNab/Andre Russo.
The first Blacks known to have moved to North Elba came in 1848 to take advantage of 40-acre land grants provided by abolitionist Gerrit Smith to enable them to vote. Thirteen families are known to have arrived, and by 1870 only two of the original families remained. Of them, the Epps stayed for multiple generations.
The best well-known non-grant Black was William Appo. A famous musician, composer, and teacher based in Philadelphia, Appo bought 148 acres from Smith in 1848. Initially, he came summers and is considered Lake Placid’s first seasonal resident. According to MacKenzie, Appo’s goal was to establish a small settlement on his land. When here, Appo offered music lessons to town residents.
Other Black families bought land near the entrances to the bobrun and Craig Wood, along Bear Cub Road, in Ray Brook, and as folklore has it, out in Averyville.
“We found the first grave site by being nosey as usual,” said Rose. “We saw the guy working (clearing trees), and we went over and asked him what he was doing. He just brought it up that he had found an old foundation. Then a forest ranger marked it as a cemetery, and then we went and found it.”
“Then we found another cemetery,” said brother Otto.
“We don’t know what the other one is, but it’s not marked,” said brother Fritz.
Like a herd of basset hounds on a scent, the kids scrambled through the undergrowth, taking us straight to the first cemetery. Based on MacKenzie’s location and my cousin Mickey Alford’s concurring siting and description, the first grave site, consisting of several rectangular cut stones lying about, seems to be the Avery cemetery. I found etched into one stone the faint number 28.
The second site, consisting of a small brick-sized and shaped stone on a slope near an old spring, seemed less so. As the cemetery was often referred to as a “clearing,” the implication is both open land and having several graves. Though identified in Vitvitsky’s map, Lussi’s map showed another location a bit farther down Averyville Road, an area we agreed to explore another day.
“It’s so great being a mom of a fledgling newspaper reporter,” said Anne Wenzler. “It’s fun. Now we get to be in on a scoop of what’s going on. The neighbors now know about a piece of our history. Many have visited the cemetery following Rose’s scoop.”
“When I get older, I want to be a ballerina,” said Pearl.
In the hunt was Cindy Smith, who is digitizing all those buried in the North Elba Cemetery, work that she finds fascination because of the histories those buried represent. As part of that, Smith is developing their family trees, which includes the Averys. Others on the quest were Paul Smith’s College Professor Curt Stager and neighbors Karen Davidson, Peter Seward, Paul Gutmann and Dan Winkler.
“There’s a strong oral history that there was a Black cemetery and that it’s in this area,” said SUNY Potsdam Anthropology Professor Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, also in the search. “The repeated quality of that is very compelling. Lyman Epps was alive until the ’40s, and he could have helped bring that story into the modern era.”
Stay tuned; this story will be continued.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)