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HELPERS: Retiree finds restoring history 'rewarding'

'It would be a shame to let their stones crumble away,' says Vaughan Harris, a member of Cemetery Guardians
Vaughan Harris is a member of a group called Cemetery Guardians.

A small group of people have taken it upon themselves to restore the memories of those before us.

Vaughan Harris is a 79-year-old retired cabinet maker. He has always been good with his hands, starting at a young age working on hot rods, and eventually following in his father’s footsteps of woodworking and furniture restoration.

Every Tuesday morning, Harris drives to the Auld Kirk Scotch Settlement on Line 6 and unearths cemetery relics from the past. As the interview starts, he gently scoops soil away from a small footstone that reads, “father,” revealing a larger piece that has sunken into the ground. His passion for his initiative shines through as he speaks about the progress he’s made. Harris is part of a group called the Cemetery Guardians, which is made up of volunteers from different backgrounds, and they work on other areas such as Wilson’s Hill Cemetery and Christ Church Cemetery.

The process is somewhat of a treasure hunt; Harris references a book published in 1908 by Andrew Hunter, the most famous historian in all of Simcoe County. Hunter cycled around the county, documenting and studying different settlements in the area. He mentions several gravestones at the Auld Kirk that have disappeared, but Harris has taken the time to locate them as most have broken down or sunken below the grass.

“Many times, I’m digging, and I keep going until I hear a ‘clunk,’” Harris explains. “These stones are sometimes eight inches down.”

Hunter’s notes are valuable assets to Harris.

Harris’s work is evident on the recovered pieces as several gravestones are now held up with iron rods and braces to prevent them from falling over again. However, it’s not only the headstones he finds, but also barriers and decorative pieces the families initially requested to have placed by their loved ones’ resting spots.

Harris says, “Every plot is different, because it depends on the condition of the tombstone. It can take anywhere from one day to five weeks.”

Given the age of the cemetery, going on roughly 200 years now, it’s incredible to see how well the stones were built.

For Harris and the Cemetery Guardians, it’s based on a love of history and an appreciation of the people who built Simcoe County.

“It’s very rewarding,” Harris adds. “These were people, and all we have are these memories of them. It would be a shame to let their stones crumble away.”

He also attributes his health to the initiative.

“When you get older, you’ve got to find things to do. It keeps me going. I could not simply sit at home doing nothing,” he says.

Perhaps another influence from his father, who worked full time at the same job for 60 years.