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Activist’s grave rediscovered in restored cemetery

October 6, 2018

KEANSBURG, N.J. (AP) — Chances are you’ve heard the phrase, “Go West, young man.” It’s one of the more renown American utterances, popularized by New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley as the nation’s westward expansion exploded in the mid-1800s.

The labor radical and Greeley mentor who conceived the laws that spurred the population shift — thus inspiring the expression — is buried in Keansburg, in an old cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Waackaack Creek. Last year, after an arduous restoration that bordered on excavation, the grave of George Henry Evans was discovered.

“This town is one square mile, but now you can come see a famous American who’s buried here,” said Robert Scifo, the borough resident who led the cleanup.

The refurbished Truax/Palmer Burial Ground was to be dedicated at 9 a.m. Saturday. It’s located on a three-acre sliver behind Leroy Place; the entrance gate is easy to miss, tucked next to the front lawn of a private home. Roughly 100 people were buried here from 1792 to 1958, including Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans and scions of the borough’s illustrious past.

“It preserves the history of the town,” said Edward Balyk, Keansburg Historical Society president. “I think cemeteries hold the attitudes and thoughts and memories of the past. When you forget the past, you lose your guidance to the future.”

The project’s groundwork was laid in 1984, when a Keansburg teen named Trevor Kilpatrick researched the cemetery’s occupants for his Eagle Scout project. His records showed that Evans, who died in 1856, was buried in somewhere in the plot. But where remained a mystery.

English by birth, Evans moved to New York City and became a prominent newspaper publisher and labor reformer. In 1832 he purchased a 40-acre farm in Keansburg, then known as Granville. That’s where he stayed, using his platform to found the National Reform Association and push the federal government to freely disburse its 1.4 billion acres of westward land to citizens who pledged to cultivate their tracts as small farms. At the time, land speculators with connections to the government had been gobbling up the property for resale at inflated prices.

In 1862, six years after his death, Evans’ vision became reality as Congress coded his proposal into law. He posthumously became known as the father of the Homestead Acts — one of the great public victories in American civics.

But where, alas, was his grave? The old Truax/Palmer cemetery was decayed and horribly overgrown when Scifo, other volunteers and the borough’s public works team, led by Jim Falco, began clearing brush two years ago.

“The grass was rarely cut, the tombstones were flipped over, people were dumping trash back here,” said Scifo, a professional photographer.

Many of the headstones were disintegrated or worn beyond recognition. Some had disappeared entirely, taken by the creek during storm overflows. The cleanup’s eureka moment came when the crew moved the thick trunk of a fallen tree, revealing a flat, six-foot limestone grave marker with Evans’ name inscribed across it.

“It was like discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb,” Balyk said.

The borough has dedicated funds to maintain the cemetery going forward, providing a wrought-iron fence to protect the grounds and a large sign listing the occupants. Evans’ plot lies on the far side from the entrance, sort of a grand finale as you walk along this slice of local history.

“There’s a lot of significance buried in this graveyard,” Scifo said. “That’s pretty awesome.”

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Online: https://on.app.com/2IDZtj4

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Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com

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