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Missing Monuments, Plots and Plats: A Cemetery's Unearthed History

Family, volunteers honor the man and the story behind the reclaimed Higgins Cemetery.

 

Nearly 200 years after his death, James Higgins could be about to get his monument back. 

Fifty years after the death of the Montgomery County planter and Revolutionary War veteran, Higgins’ family erected an obelisk monument where he was buried on what was a sprawling family farm in Rockville.

Today, the obelisk is gone and the plot, in a neighborhood known as Spring Lake Park, is within earshot of traffic on Rockville Pike and within sight of construction cranes at the Parklawn Building on Fisher Avenue.

But unlike the case for much of the 20th century, the plot is being preserved by a group of volunteers, historians and Higgins descendants.

On Saturday, the group, known as the Higgins Cemetery Historic Preservation Association, Inc., was joined by local scouts and members of the Chevy Chase chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution for a ceremony honoring James Higgins’ military service and marking the plot’s designation on the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation.

Click here to read more about the groups’ effort to preserve the site.

Industrial buildings already surround the cemetery on three sides. With the 2009 approval of the Twinbrook Sector Plan, the neighborhood is changing once again. Apartments and new federal government agency buildings are rising alongside new retail space surrounding the nearby Twinbrook Metro station.

“That’s one reason we wanted to have [the cemetery] designated a historic site because it’s really an oasis,” said Eileen McGuckian, a local historian who has been instrumental in the cemetery’s restoration and preservation.

Through the group’s efforts, the Seneca sandstone base of what was once the obelisk that marked the grave of James Higgins (1733-1816) is once again the cemetery’s centerpiece.

The whereabouts of the original obelisk are unknown—much like the fate of several headstones believed to have once adorned the graves of Higgins’ descendants.

Four cornerstones marking the plot’s boundary have been donated—an addition that was not part of the original cemetery. The same donor whose land includes the quarry that bore the Seneca sandstone for the markers has identified stone for the obelisk, McGuckian said.

Erected in 1866 and bearing such Biblical inscriptions on its base as “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” the obelisk was a not uncommon 19th century monument to families who could afford it, McGuckian said.

The cemetery includes 11 verified burial plots, most from the second half of the 19th century.

After decades of neglect, cleanup efforts to reclaim the cemetery from overgrowth and a layer of garbage began in 1997.

“Every time we did a cleanup we found more gravestones,” said McGuckian, who was executive director of Peerless Rockville when the historical society, along with Higgins family members, began organizing restoration efforts.

In some cases the group discovered only footstones, with the headstone identifying the person whose body lay beneath nowhere to be found. The group also uncovered smaller unadorned headstones that appear to the untrained eye to be rocks jutting out of the ground. They are most likely graves of slaves whom the family was known to own, McGuckian said.

“And who knows what was lost before 1927?” she said.

That’s when the earliest known map to show the grave markers and who is buried beneath was made by Charles J. Maddox.

“One of the [Higgins] heirs just showed up with it one day,” McGuckian said.

Other clues to the cemetery’s history include an 1851 plat, found in judgment records at the county courthouse. The plat bears a label of “grave-yard” near an icon marking the Higgins family home not far from the “Georgetown Turnpike”—now known as Rockville Pike.

Over the years, some of the cemetery’s gravestones have turned up in unlikely places.

A 1983 article in the Montgomery Journal tells the tale of Horatio Higgins’ headstone turning up at a county police station.

“We’ve called the police. No one has any idea where it is,” McGuckian said.

A couple of years back a realtor from Carroll County found the headstone of Mary E. Higgins Gott leaning against the foundation of a home for sale in Westminster.

“Four strong guys in a truck went up there and picked it up,” McGuckian said.

Also buried at the site are the bodies of James Higgins’ wife Luraner Becraft Higgins (1744-1819) and their son James Becraft Higgins (1772-1848). Gott, who died in 1891, was the last known burial.

What happened next was not unlike Rockville in the 20th century, when the arrival of Metrorail helped spur new development in the city.

As the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s Metropolitan Branch took root in Montgomery County in the 1870s, the Higgins family began subdividing the family farm into building lots. A planned subdivision dubbed Spring Lake Park ran up against a series of economic depressions in the 1890s and development plans fizzled.

The Higgins farmhouse eventually gave way to homes built between Twinbrook Parkway and Randolph Road in the 1920s or 1930s. A few of the homes still stand not far from the cemetery.

Discovering the cemetery was a meaningful find for Rockville resident Knowles Little–even if he discovered it a bit later than some.

Little, a sixth generation descendant of James Higgins, now maintains the Higgins Cemetery Historic Preservation Association, Inc. website.

Montgomery County history runs through Little’s veins. His first name is taken from the family namesake of Kensington’s Knowles Avenue. Kensington itself was once known as Knowles Station. Other descendants of Higgins bear recognizable Montgomery County surnames, including Mannakee, Talbott, Welsh and Prather.

Little’s discovery is proof that the family plot was, for a time, lost, but never forgotten.

One day in 2000, he came across a Peerless Rockville display in Rockville Town Center that mentioned the plot. Little, now 70, had a realization: “This was the cemetery that my grandmother had told me about when I was 10 years old. That little piece of information was tucked back there,” he said, tapping his temple.

His grandmother’s mother, Georgiana Knowles Mannakee, is buried in the cemetery in an as-yet unidentified grave.

Dick Stoner December 20, 2012 at 02:11 PM
The Higgins Cemetery is a great little oasis in the Twinbrook area of Rockville. It's worth a visit to anyone who likes to learn about Rockville's past
Clare Lise Kelly December 20, 2012 at 08:56 PM
Higgins Family Cemetery has been designated a historic site on the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation, and now receives protection under the county preservation ordinance. More about the history of Higgins Cemetery may be found at http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/historic/greenwichanimalhiggins/
Buddy Wesley Thomas Vickers December 20, 2012 at 11:38 PM
I lived in Springlake Park in about 1963 untill 1967 and played in that spot a lot. If I remember right, there was a part of the Little family still living there and I played with their children a lot. I still have a scare on my rump from being bit by their German Sheapard dog one day as we played in their side yard. That plot of land was not totaly forgoten by everyone.

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