SANFORD — In the early 1930s, more than six dozen coffins were exhumed from the overgrown Woodlawn Cemetery, carried a mile away and re-interred at the town’s new municipal cemetery.

The grave of one child was left behind, an apparent oversight that would not be discovered for more than 80 years.

For decades, children attended classes at Sanford’s Emerson School and ran on a playground that was created on the same grounds once occupied by the original town cemetery. Eventually, the school closed and last month was torn down to make way for a Cumberland Farms gas station and convenience store.

On a Thursday afternoon in early May, a construction crew digging near the new store foundation unearthed the remains of the forgotten child and the remnants of a Victorian-era coffin. The discovery halted the project and touched off a delicate process of excavating the grave, documenting the bones and cataloging each artifact found with the remnants of the coffin.

Students researching braces from the coffin have determined that the hardware is nickel-plated. They’re still researching a pair of rare, Victorian-era coffin keys that also turned up during excavation of the former Emerson School playground.

Now, local high school students born more than a century after the child was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery are helping city officials unravel the mystery of the child’s identity. After examining the remains and studying the artifacts, they are pursuing DNA tests to see if the child was the great-aunt of a Maine woman who reached out to city officials after hearing the child’s remains had been found.

“I don’t think anyone wanted to see whoever this person is just re-interred in Oakdale Cemetery in some anonymous plot when there is technology to find out who it is,” said Paul Auger, the local historian and high school teacher who exhumed the remains. “What a tragedy it would be if we had the opportunity and didn’t take advantage of it.”

On June 6, City Manager Steven Buck will ask the Sanford City Council to use about $4,800 from the proceeds of the Emerson School sale to pay for the DNA tests.

“I’m very positive we’re going to be able to identify who this is,” Buck said. “The great part of the story is we know where the family is and she could be re-interred in the family plot at Oakdale Cemetery. That’s our driver.”

A GRAVE IS UNEARTHED

The land’s history as Sanford’s first municipal cemetery was well-known to local historians and city officials, but finding remains there still came as a shock. Auger had asked the construction company building the Cumberland Farms to keep an eye out for anything unusual, but didn’t really expect them to find anything.

Buck was in a meeting on May 4 when he got a call on his cellphone from Pete Smith, the public works foreman. A few blocks down Main Street from City Hall, a construction crew had just unearthed the grave.

“This was a surprise because we had records showing everybody was moved,” Buck said.

Paul Auger stands in the pit at a Main Street construction site a day after a child’s remains were unearthed there May 4. He enlisted students to help clean the bones, study the coffin remnants and pursue clues to identification of the child. He estimates that the grave is from sometime between 1880 and 1906.

When the city sold the property to Cumberland Farms last year, the purchaser had raised concerns about the land’s previous use as a cemetery. But the city had records showing 77 bodies were exhumed and re-interred at Oakdale Cemetery by 1933, when Emerson School purchased the lot to build a playground. Everyone was satisfied with that and the city sold the property for $800,000.

The Emerson School, which closed in 2013 and needed extensive repairs, was demolished in April. Construction workers had just finished the new store’s foundation – inches from the remains, it turns out – and shifted their focus to excavating for a water line when they found the grave. The PM Construction foreman was watching every scoop of earth coming out of the trench when a piece of skull poked out of the soil. He halted work and called police.

“Within a few minutes, the entire police department and most of the fire department were surrounding the hole,” Auger said. “No one had ever seen this happen before.”

Sanford police contacted the state Medical Examiner’s Office and provided information showing the grave was found in a known cemetery. The ME’s office told the city the remains had to be hand excavated, the local historical society notified and the remains re-interred. Auger, a member of the city’s Historical Committee, was called in to help.

Auger, who was a police officer for a decade before becoming a teacher 19 years ago, remembers only one other time that an old grave was found during construction in Sanford. Back around 1980, a crew digging an elevator shaft at the Town Hall annex found a femur. Construction was stopped while the Historical Committee determined the area had once been a cemetery. The leg bone was reburied in an anonymous plot at Oakdale Cemetery.

‘GRAMPY’S LITTLE SISTER’

To prepare for the exhumation, Auger found three coworkers willing to cover his classes at Sanford High School the next day, went to the hardware store for supplies to make a sifter and arranged to have a tent put over the grave because rain was in the forecast. By 7 the next morning, he was climbing into the pit.

For hours, Auger, Buck and Smith sifted through the dirt a handful at a time, pulling out shards of glass, pieces of metal and bones caked in dirt and encased in root hairs. A large root from a nearby oak tree had grown around the coffin, perfectly outlining three sides of the grave. Auger measured everything: the length and width of the grave, the placement of the bones, the size of the coffin braces, hinges and keys. They found ribs and finger bones and pieces of jawbone with a half-dozen teeth still intact.

Their work was halted for several hours in the middle of the day as Buck and the city attorney dealt with last-minute questions from the Medical Examiner’s Office and the Department of Health and Human Services, which has purview over cemeteries and cemetery relocations. The city clerk issued a permit to exhume and move the remains, and work resumed.

Late that afternoon, as the small group tried to finish their work before it started raining, Buck’s cellphone rang. It was his assistant back at City Hall with an urgent message to call a Maine woman who saw news of the discovery and had a story to share.

“She said she was always told in her family that when the cemetery was moved in 1931, they never found Grampy’s little sister,” Buck said.

The woman, whose name city officials aren’t releasing until the remains are identified, lives in southern Maine and is an avid researcher of her family genealogy, Auger said. She provided many details about her family, including names going back generations. Auger was able to research the family and discovered the mother of the child had five living children at the time of the 1900 census, but only four of her children are shown on other records.

“We don’t even know the name of this child,” he said.

Auger said the child was likely born between 1890 and 1895. The woman who contacted local officials also provided information about a second possible match, a different girl in the extended family who died in Sanford in 1902.

STUDENTS STEP IN

With a few clues about the possible identity of the child, Auger turned to a group of students at the high school to assist in the investigation. He sees it as a unique learning experience and way to connect students with history.

One student went with Auger to a local jewelry store to determine the metal hardware used for the coffin’s handle braces was nickel-plated. They’re still researching a pair of rare, Victorian-era coffin keys.

Paul Auger holds a nail and a bracket from a grave discovered at a construction site on Main Street. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Two honors students, both headed to nursing school in the fall, cleaned and sorted the bones with help from Auger’s two children.

“We wanted to learn as much as we could from the remains,” Auger said.

Seniors Kristen O’Connell and Sydney Littlefield had never held real human bones before the afternoon they arrived at Carll Heald & Black Funeral Home in Springvale, where the remains are being stored until they are re-interred. During their anatomy classes at Sanford High, they used plastic bones and photos to learn about the 206 bones in the human body.

Using soft-bristled toothbrushes, chopsticks and water, they spent several hours cleaning dirt and roots from the bones.

“We had to try to make them recognizable,” said O’Connell, 18.

They used their anatomy textbook to help identify each bone before laying them out on an examination table to form the skeleton. The pelvis was missing, making it impossible for Littlefield and O’Connell to determine the gender of the child. They were encouraged to see the teeth that could possibly provide DNA to confirm the child’s identity.

“It’s interesting to think you could help someone find a missing relative and help put someone to rest,” said Littlefield, 17.

Officials have not allowed the bones to be photographed because of privacy concerns for the family.

Auger turned to science teacher Beth Marras and her Advanced Placement biology text to make a DNA tree to show which living family members would have the same mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited through the mother. The woman who contacted the city cannot provide the sample because the family connection would be through her grandfather, but a first cousin twice removed from the child could, the students determined after reviewing a family tree provided by Auger. Students will perform the buccal swab to collect cells from the inside of the cheek of the cousin, who has agreed to provide a DNA sample.

George Pouravelis, who teaches anatomy and physiology at the high school, said it has been amazing to watch students be part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has generated a lot of interest in the community.

“This is an exciting statement about this community to do the right thing here,” he said. “If it was someone in my family, it would be nice to know that someone cared enough to do this the right way.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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