By Pat Reber
There’s nothing like a stroll through Rockville Cemetery to see how the city has changed since the 1700s. With the onset of cooler weather, the cemetery on Baltimore Road is an ideal outing.
For Eileen McGuckian, a local historian who led a recent tour of 40 people through the burial grounds , the most recent story told by the tombstones is that Rockville is becoming “ever more international.”
But the graveyard is also a testament to involvement by Rockvillians not only in running their own community but also in the broader scope of US history going back before the Revolutionary War, to the 1730s and ‘40s.
McGuckian, the former executive director of Peerless Rockville, stopped early in her tour at the tombstone of Betim Muco, whose final inscription was written in his native Albanian language. Muco, who died at age 67 in 2015, was an internationally known seismologist and a poet in his mother tongue.
Muco was one of an increasing number of immigrants who have settled in Rockville and helped push its population beyond 60,000 from the pre-World War II total of about 2,000.
Nearby Muco’s grave marker, a tall Russian Orthodox Cross, bears an inscription in Cyrillic. Just a few steps further, an Angel stands guard over the remains of Julia Lopez and the Spanish-language inscription.
McGuckian, who currently serves on the board of the Rockville Cemetery Association which organized the tour along with Peerless, said every grave has a story to tell. But she added: “The cemetery is no longer just white and Christian.”
The oldest extant tombstone – that of John Harding – dates back to 1752 and is located in the oldest and highest elevation of Rockville Cemetery. It is also the oldest above-ground artifact in Rockville, McGuckian said. Most Native American artifacts in Rockville, dating back hundreds or thousands of years, remain buried.
But the Harding grave is almost equally well-known for its location near the one-time grave of someone who is no longer there: the writer F Scott Fitzgerald. The “Great Gatsby” author was first interred next to Harding’s tombstone after his death in 1940, and his grave was the most sought-after tombstone in the cemetery until he was reburied at St Mary’s Catholic Church in 1975.
“Whenever you visited the cemetery, a child who lived in the groundkeeper’s cottage would come out and say, ‘Give me a quarter and I’ll show you where it is’,” McGuckian recalled, laughing. The child didn’t need to clarify which grave he would lead you to, she added.
While most of the more than 5,000 people buried at Rockville Cemetery may lack the literary lustre of a Fitzgerald, many were well known locally and statewide for their role as legislators, judges, mayors, pilots – and yes, even known nationwide as baseball players.
Walter Johnson, a Major League Baseball pitcher for the defunct Washington Senators and one of the first players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, held a 56-year record for strikeouts for decades long after his death in 1946. On the day of the tour, more than half a dozen baseballs and two baseball hats had been left by fans on top of his tomb.
Walking among the grave stones one encounters the namesakes of many of Rockville’s streets and institutions: Beall, Gude, Hurley, Stonestreet, Bowie, Pumphrey. – leaders in government, law and business over the past 250 years.
Two family members of the dead accompanied the tour and spoke about their ancestors.
John Carter, who has connections to Rockville’s many generations of Hurleys and Carters, stood in the oldest part of the cemetery and pointed around him at multiple gravestones of his family. He spoke of two uncles who were not buried there, telling of how they had died at sea during World War II.
Ellen Buckingham spoke of her father, Richard G Buckingham, who died in his late 70s in 1992 after serving the community as a veterinarian, first for large farm animals and later for suburban pets as the farms gave way to development.
He helped wipe out rabies in the late 1940s and ‘50s, McGuckian said. “I interviewed him once and he talked about getting hold of the dogs and vaccinating them on the hoods of cars!” McGuckian said.
While he did not serve directly in the military in World War II, Buckingham was later recognized for his service to the war effort, his daughter said.
“My father was not in the service, but supplied beef cattle to the military,” Ellen Buckingham said. When he died, local police provided a special escort in recognition of his work with police dogs.
Veterans of all American wars are buried at Rockville Cemetery, going back to the Revolutionary War, through the War of 1812 and into the present day. Civil War veterans from both sides found their final resting place there, a reflection of the bitter divisions over slavery within Maryland and Montgomery County.
The tour stopped at the grave of Gordon Daisley, whom McGuckian said was a World War II code breaker, and passed the tomb of a man who served with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war in 1898.
One of the country’s earliest pilots, Colonel Paul Peck, flew at the time of the Wright Brothers. His inscription reads: “Aviator holding world’s duration record at his death.” He died in a biplane accident in 1912, at age 23, McGuckian said.
The cemetery was originally operated by the Anglican church. By 1880 a new organization of five Protestant churches took over operations. Burials continue to this day and lots are still available.
But in 2001, there was upwelling outrage over conditions of neglect and “how it had gone downhill,” McGuckian said.
Grass grew tall, tombstones fell into disrepair and a lot of work needed to be done.
Lot owners, community leaders and officials formed the Rockville Cemetery Asssociation Inc that same year, and have been working since then, with considerable input from volunteers, to improve maintenance.
The tour ended with an appearance by Dr. Edward Elisha Stonestreet – er, that is, a portrayal of the well-known local physician who was buried there in 1903.
Clarence Hickey, familiar locally for his Stonestreet portrayals, donned a black bowler hat and old-fashioned vest to talk about the challenges of practicing medicine in the 19th century and keeping people alive.
Dr. Stonestreet and his wife Martha experienced first hand such losses. Only six daughters of their eight children survived beyond early adulthood. One daughter died at age one, while son Edward Junior died of typhoid at age 21.
“Death was more a part of life in those days,” Hickey’s Dr. Stonestreet lamented.
Pat Reber is a retired international journalist, and a member of Peerless Rockville.