SHIRLEY — When Benjamin Brown’s 1857 tombstone showed up in the historic Center Cemetery a few years ago, nobody seemed to notice its untimely arrival. Neatly planted and closely resembling its neighbors, the stone stands beside eight other antique tombstones in the burial plot of Deacon Joseph Brown and seven members of his family.
But the stone doesn’t belong there, nor does it mark anyone’s final resting place. Benjamin Brown (1787-1857) was buried in Townsend, so why was his tombstone here?
It was a mystery uncovered during a family research project. Now sharp-eyed Nashoba Valley Voice readers may have solved it.
With engraved art that might be the work of 19th century stone carver Benjamin Day, it was the ninth stone in a grouping that cemetery records show should only have eight. One of the other stones bears the same name: Benjamin Brown, who died in 1803 at age 95.
Revisiting the mystery
Benjamin Brown, who died in 1857 at age 70, was buried in a family plot in Townsend’s Hillside Cemetery, beside his wife, Azuba. He was not related to Deacon Joseph Brown.
According to a family history authored by Frank Brown and completed in 1983, Benjamin Brown was born in Coventry, Connecticut, although no birth record was found.
In a 2013 addena, Frank’s son, Robert F. Brown, whose research contributed to the first part of this story as well as this one, names Benjamin’s parents and grandparents and pinpoints Richard Browne as the “immigrant ancestor” who established roots in Newbury, MA in 1634.
Titled “Benjamin Brown of Townsend MA and Descendants,” the document traces the family tree to and from Benjamin Brown, of Townsend, whose wandering tombstone — the original one, it turns out — now sits in Shirley.
A farmer, he married Azuba Searle in 1809. They settled on the “Brown Homestead” in Townsend Harbor, east of Warren Road, north of Witch Brook. They had several children, including a daughter, Azubah, born in 1811, who died days later. Their first son, William, was born two months after they were married.
Inherited from Azuba’s sister Mary, the property was occupied by four generations of Benjamin Brown’s family. His son Benjamin, who married a first cousin, Elizabeth Searle, passed the farm to his son George, whose children were the last family members to live there. After he died in 1912, the property was sold. The house burned down in 1923.
George Brown was a key to unlocking the tombstone mystery.
Around the turn of the last century, he acquired the plot in Hillside Cemetery where his grandparents and other family members were buried and where a “modern,” tombstone now marks Benjamin and Azuba Brown’s graves, replacing old stones that had deteriorated. No one seems to know where Azuba’s first stone went after it was removed.
But Benjamin’s showed up in Shirley. The question then becomes, how did it get there?
Fast forward to 2014, when former Shirley Cemetery Superintendent Rudolph Kurtyka’s house on Lancaster Road was up for sale and a realtor found it in the backyard.
The realtor called the highway department, which maintains the town’s two cemeteries. DPW foreman Paul Farrar took the tombstone to the Deacon Brown plot in the Center Cemetery and planted it there, mistakenly believing he’d found its rightful home.
At this point, the story becomes a puzzle that Cemetery Commissioner Barbara Yocum, an architectural conservator by profession, continued to assemble. As she continued to dig into the past, with help from Brown family researchers Robert F. Brown of Ohio and his sister Elizabeth Savino, of Connecticut, publicity unearthed new clues.
Rudy Kurtyka’s son, Steve. who grew up in town and still keeps tabs on Shirley news, read about the tombstone mystery in the Nashoba Valley Voice online and provided missing pieces to help solve it.
In an e-mail first sent to Town Clerk Amy McDougall and forwarded to Yocum at his request, Kurtyka, who has lived in New Jersey for 53 years, explained how the tombstone turned up at his old house on Lancaster Road.
Steve’s parents, Rudy and Irene, bought the house (which dates to 1898) in 1945-46 for $8,000, he wrote. The tombstone was there then, used as a landing for back porch steps.
Placed facing down, the stone was reseated a few times, so they’d seen the inscription, he said. When his dad replaced the porch, he gave it to relatives across the road.
His aunt and uncle aimed to use it as a step stone between house and breezeway but it was eight inches too low, Kurtyka said, so they gave it back. His father placed it in a “safe and respectful place” by the barn, inscription facing out, “like a plaque.”
Rudy Kurtyka, who died in 1981, served in the Army National Guard until 1973 and became Cemetery Superintendent shortly after his retirement, his son said. But his new job apparently had no connection to the tombstone, which was there when he moved in.
Another clue came from Robert Brown, Benjamin’s descendant, via the e-mail loop.
The 1900 Shirley census shows two grandsons of Benjamin Brown living in Shirley at that time, Brown wrote: William H. Brown and Frederick Brown. Later censuses (1910-20) show that William Brown lived on Lancaster Road, in the house Rudy and Irene Kurtyka bought in 1945. The paper trail is clear: They bought it from Walter K. Pulsifer, who bought it from heirs of Isabella Brown.
William and Frederick’s father was Samuel Searle Brown, of Townsend, one of Benjamin’s sons.
According to the property deed, Isabella H. Brown acquired the lot in 1897 and added an adjacent parcel the next year. The deed shows land purchased for $200, no mention of a house. “The reasonable assumption” is that the Browns built it, Robert Brown said.
As for the tombstone, a logical explanation for its travels over time would be that when George Brown removed his grandparent’s original tombstones from the cemetery in Townsend, he gave the stone that was in the best shape to William Brown, who used it as construction material when he added a porch to his new house on Lancaster Road.
Thus ends the tale of the traveling tombstone of Benjamin Brown and how it came to rest in Shirley’s Center Cemetery, where Yocum has said it will remain until it can be safely and respectfully removed and relocated.