The Reisterstown Community Cemetery grassroots restoration effort literally started with grass.
Sixth-generation Reisterstown resident Chris Larkin’s mother regularly asked him to check if the cemetery lawn was being kept up, as many of their relatives are buried there. Larkin, other family members and friends maintained it for a while, but the cemetery, with more than 700 graves, started to fall in to more serious disrepair.
“Fast forward, and now I’m president of the board of trustees of the cemetery,” said Larkin. “There are a lot of people involved … and we’ve taken a lot big steps forward in the preservation.”
In March 1758, German immigrant and farmer John Reister bought a 20-acre tract of land between Baltimore and his farmland in Frederick. He thought it would be a good halfway point for a tavern and inn to accommodate frequent travelers such as himself. Soon Reister bought more adjoining acres and named it Reister’s Desire, which eventually became Reisterstown.
John Reister was an independent thinker and welcomed freedom of speech. He was also a vocal opponent of England. The residents of Reisterstown were like-minded. They had signed the Oath of Fidelity, a document swearing allegiance to the State of Maryland and denying allegiance and obedience to Great Britain during the Revolutionary War.
At that time, burial in a cemetery required a hefty tax paid to the king of England and compliance with the Church. In 1764, Reister deeded land to the residents to create a cemetery (which today is about three-quarters of an acre) that ensured they would have an affordable option and not remain beholden to England’s rules. This was renegade action for the time.
“Everyone was welcome,” said Larkin. “Here you have a cemetery from 1764 and you have different religions, different colors, rich people and poor people, tavern owners and laborers. That (sentiment) still stands today. Reisterstown is very diverse — you’ve got all races, religions, political groups, and we come together to support a common cause. … When we’re doing things, we don’t ask how much money you have or who did you vote for. That never comes up.”
Many well-known names appear on the headstones such as Owings, Hager, and of course, Reister. Another famous (in her time) resident buried in Reisterstown is Bertha Mailhouse Harryman, who died when she was only 28. Her obituary from December 1903 reads, “She had a dramatic soprano voice of great beauty and range. … She was leading soprano of Eutaw Place Synagogue.” It also notes that she performed just weeks before she died at “the Pope’s Jubilee service, in the Cathedral.” Harryman was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism most likely when she married successful businessman Amos B. Harryman.
Larkin said, “If we got rid of this little area, what would Reisterstown be? It would be a cut-through to another place. … If a town loses its main street and its beginnings, it loses its soul. … It would be like a person without a heart.”
The Reisterstown Community Cemetery is completely volunteer supported. If you would like to donate, get involved or take a tour, go to reisterstowncemetery. blogspot.com/ or call 717-487-7325. The cemetery is located at 19 Cockeys Mill Road.
Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor