3755 Tonawanda Creek Road | Amherst, NY 14228 | Directions

phone: 716-689-1440 | fax: 716-689-1409 | Contact

Friday, November 7th, 2014

On a daily basis, we get multiple requests from members of the community wishing to donate items that they have in their possession to the museum. More often than not, the items they wish to donate do not relate to our mission or they are duplicates of items we already have or they are too large and we do not have sufficient space to house them. However, every once in a while, we come across a real gem – something different and uniquely interesting – with a story to match.In mid-October, a gravestone was donated to us. It was a little over two feet high, a few inches thick and about a foot wide. The story that came along with it was simple – it was found along Ellicott Creek near Brookside Drive in Williamsville. At first glance, the date on the gravestone appeared to be 1815 so it was quite exciting! The inscription on the stone was slightly visible. The gravestone made its way back to the collections storage area and sat, waiting to be cleaned…waiting to tell its story. Weeks came and went while other artifacts were processed and the museum was busy with special events. But one day this week, its time had finally come.
After researching the safest ways to clean gravestones (it was determined that this particular one was probably marble), work began on clearing away as much as the algae and debris on its surface as possible. The gravestone was placed in a large tub of lukewarm water and submerged. Research revealed that by submerging the gravestone for an extended period of time, the stone would soak up the water and thus, if any detergent was used, the detergent would not soak in and stain the stone. The first step was to simply try to clear away the debris just using the water and a soft bristle brush. The bristles had to be soft in order to prevent any further abrasion on the stone. Some progress was made but eventually, a gentle detergent was introduced into the equation and we succeeded in clearing away most of the debris that was keeping the inscription from becoming legible. What we came out with was this…
What a difference! With the inscription now clearly visible, we could see that it was in German.
Hier ruht in Gott
JOHANN PHILLIP
sohn von
Wilhelm Helwig
geboren den 22nd Jan
1845
gestorben den 2nd Feb
1845
Translated to:
Here rests in God
JOHANN PHILLIP
son of
Wilhelm Helwig
born on 22nd of January
1845
died on 2nd of February
1845

PictureNow that we had a name, we could commence with the research! Originally, we had misjudged the birth year to be 1815 so thought we were dealing with a young man’s gravestone, aged 30. However, when looking at ancestry.com, we learned that Johann Phillip Helwig was born to William Wilhem Helwig and Catharina Knoche Helwig – Catharina’s birth date was 1821. Strange…how could the son be born before the mother?! Upon closer inspection, the birth date was seen to be 1845, the same as the death year. Catharina’s date of death was January 1845. Now the pieces were coming together! Catharina was about 24 years old when she gave birth to Johann. She died, probably as a result of the childbirth, and Johann survived for not long afterwards. A sad story, but not an uncommon one in the 19th century.Further research (to be honest, just a simple Google search), revealed a reference to Johann Phillip in the Stutter Cemetery in Lancaster, NY. As well, his mother was listed as also being buried there! So it was finished…the gravestone had finally revealed its secret and what a journey it had made! However, its true home could not be at BNHV. It belonged back at Stutter Cemetery, marking the grave of little Johann next to his mother. After calling the Town of Lancaster, who maintains the small cemetery, a member of the Highway Department came to the museum and carefully loaded the gravestone into his front seat. Armed with the information on where Catharina was buried, he made his way back to Lancaster to reunite gravestone with grave…the final trip in the gravestone’s long journey away from the cemetery and back again.From the Stutter Cemetery in Lancaster to Brookside Drive in Williamsville to Tonawanda Creek Road in Amherst, this humble gravestone had made quite a trek – close to 15 miles from its original place in the cemetery. It is almost five miles along Ellicott Creek Road from the cemetery to where the gravestone was supposedly found. How did the gravestone end up in the creek in the first place? How long did it take for it to make its way to Williamsville? If someone had not noticed it and recognized it for what it was, how long would it have rotted away on the banks of Ellicott Creek, separated from the grave it was supposed to be marking? Unfortunately, there are no clear answers to these questions. All we can do is be happy that the gravestone has made it back to where it is supposed to be…and be thankful that we were able to play a small role in its overall journey.

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