Long Family Cemetery
By: Nick Malawskey
In the spring of 1814, Isaac Long paid $515 for 60 acres of farmland in what was then Swatara Township.
On the scratchy deed records that exist on microfilm, thin, cursive writing records the location. Viewed through the microfilm machines on the first floor of the Dauphin County Courthouse, the backlighted copy of the 198-year-old document is hard to read in spots.
Graves from the mid-1800s nestle under trees in the middle of a cornfield on the Pickel family farm in Lower Swatara Township, Dauphin County.
A few details stand out. Isaac Long’s property began at the “Black Oak Tree” before running south. A pool at a nearby farm is another landmark. So, too, are the neighboring farms.
The small, rolling plot of land included a small wooded lot and a wheat field. A few miles to the south was Middletown, an important stopping point for commerce and travel between Lancaster and Harrisburg.
It’s impossible to say where the farm was. The oak tree and the pool are long gone. But almost 200 years later, some farms in the area are still there and so, too, might be Isaac, buried on the land.
The surrounding area, however, has changed.
Gone are the neighboring farms, replaced with industrialized logistics centers that feed commerce to Route 283 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
A railroad bed cuts the farm from the creek, where the old Clifton covered bridge fell to Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. Away from the farmstead, the barn and the outbuildings, the land gradually rises from the Swatara Creek, the hillside clad in bands of ripening corn.
Near the crown, a small grove of elm trees rises from the fields, a green island in a sea of corn.
Underneath the trees’ broad, shady canopies is a quiet patch of bare earth, uncovered by weeds or brush. It is walled off from the rest of the world by a jumbled redoubt of stones culled from the fields.
Jutting from the clay are two small rows of headstones.
In the center, surrounded by five or six members of his kin, is Isaac Long. His stone, weathered by years of wind and rain, leaves few clues as to who he was. There is no age, no date of birth or death.
He might very well not be the Isaac Long who owned a farm in the area at the time the graves were dug. He could be a son or a cousin or totally unrelated.
Today, the graveyard is a quiet, reverent outpost of the 1800s surrounded by the modern world. Buried alongside Isaac Long are Benjamin Long, Elizabeth Long, Sarah Young, Maryann Jennings and an unknown infant.
The family has no known living relatives.
The stillness of the tiny cemetery is broken only by the persistent rumble of trucks on the nearby highways and by the drone of jets flying overhead.
Time has not been kind to the family’s burial site.
The trees planted around the graves have dug deep, their roots intertwined around the headstones. Wind and rain have weathered the markers, leaving them half-buried and almost unreadable.
Isaac Long is long dead and buried. But on Thursday his ghost will be called into Dauphin County Court. A judge will hear a petition by the property owners, the Pickel family, to sell the farm to industrial developers. In order to do so, Isaac and his family will have to move.
Wanted for development
On early maps of Dauphin County, Fulling Mill Road is barely discernible in the area that in 1840 would become Lower Swatara Township. The road was bordered on both sides by farms.
Today, few of the farms remain. The Pickel property sits at the end of the line, right before the road plunges into the Swatara Creek.
Development along Fulling Mill Road has backed up to the farm, and there are developers interested in the property.
There’s only one hurdle — Isaac Long and his family. In order to sell the farm, the Pickel family has to relocate the Long family cemetery. The grave sites are almost dead-center on the property.
The Pickel family has hired an attorney to figure out the legal process and an archaeologist to supervise the move. The family’s remains will be re-interred at a local cemetery, with new markers.
Jeff Clark, the attorney handling the case, said this area of the law is fairly obscure. He has never handled a case such as this, nor has any of his colleagues.
But the family is committed to relocating the graves and is willing to pay the costs involved.
In the absence of living relatives of the Long family, the Pickels are “just trying to do the right thing,” Clark said.
Land had many owners
We don’t know when or where Isaac Long or any of his family members were born. Dauphin County birth, marriage and death records don’t reach back that far.
What is left are a smattering of opaque clues, teased out of census records, deed transfers and church histories.
Isaac Long appears in Swatara Township with his family around 1810. He might have been raised locally — there were other Longs in the Middletown area — or perhaps he came from the Lancaster County Longs.
That clan has a robust history in the region, helping to form the Church of the Brethren in Lancaster before immigrating to Perry County. Perhaps Isaac was an offshoot of that family tree. Perhaps not.
When he died, Isaac left two daughters: Mary Nisley and Nancy Shank. Nancy was the widow of David Shank of Derry Township.
Mary was the wife of Felix Nisley, a member of the Nisley family that owned a number of tracts of land in the county. Upon Isaac’s death, Felix petitioned the Dauphin County Orphans’ Court for the right to the farm.
He won the court’s approval, provided he buy out Nancy Shank’s share of the $1,147 farm, which he promptly did. A farm belonging to “F. Nisley” is noted in an early map of Lower Swatara Township, close to the Pickel property’s modern location.
But Nisley didn’t keep the farm long.
A few years after he bought the farm, Nisley sold the property to a Frederick Strock. The farm would change hands several times before it was bought by the Pickel family’s predecessors more than 100 years ago.
Names with no history
Through it all, Isaac and his family have remained on the land.
As one local historian noted, these types of histories don’t exist unless someone wants them to.
The monuments in the Lower Swatara Township, Dauphin County, field date from the early 1800s and include the graves of Isaac Long (or Lang), Benjamin Long (or Lang), Elizabeth Long, Sarah Young, Maryann Jennings and an unknown infant.
Isaac Long was a farmer in the early 1800s. He was not a party to the wars between the United States and England, nor did he play a prominent role in the founding of the Harrisburg region.
It is impossible to say who he was. Like most who have lived and will live and die in this world, he and his family left behind a minimal paper trail.
Aside from Isaac, his family — a wife, several children and quite possibly an older son — exists only as skeletal tallies on a census worker’s sheet or as names in the Orphans’ Court docket that settled his estate.
Isaac was a farmer, who likely raised wheat on the 60-plus acres he farmed.
Isaac was a Mennonite, who, according to church records, helped found the Middletown meeting house.
He died prior to 1840 and was buried, embraced by the land he had cultivated. Today there are no memories of his passage, only a small weathered stone monument to mark where his journey ended.
Like the lives of many of our predecessors, Isaac Long’s was fleeting and his marks upon it ephemeral when subject to the slow erosion of collective memory.
There is a permanence in death, in the markers we raise to commemorate our lives. But even the finality of the grave must bend to movement of time, the changes of the land.
Nick Malawskey, Penn Live, August 26, 2012.
Used with author’s permission.