By Mike Anderson
Pefferlaw residents can breathe a collective sigh of relief, knowing that the graves of their founding family will not be moved.
The Town of Georgina announced last week that it purchased the Robert Johnston Cemetery, a 1,000 square-foot plot of land at 264 Pefferlaw Road, from Sansiveria Investments Ltd. for $17,000.
“This is something that we have been working diligently on, and I am pleased that we were able to do this for the Johnston family – and for Pefferlaw, given its historical significance to the community,” said Mayor Margaret Quirk in a media release.
Robert Johnston, who owned and operated Pefferlaw’s first general store, also helped his brother, Capt. William Johnston, a British naval officer, build grist and lumber mills in the 1820s and is considered one of the community’s founders.
The family plot, originally located on the southwest corner of the Johnston farm, contains roughly a dozen graves. The earliest burial was for Robert’s son, William, the first wharf master at Port Bolster, who died at 25 in 1860.
Sansiveria Investments, which owns the adjacent auto repair shop, had proposed moving the graves to Cooke’s Cemetery, behind Cooke’s United Church, which is now part of the Pefferlaw fire hall.
The company had originally intended to donate the cemetery to the Town, but backed off when the Town asked that the donation include another strip of land.
It then applied to the provincial registrar of burial sites to have the graves moved.
But after a public letter-writing campaign, which included opposition from the Ontario Historical Society, the company was encouraged to come to terms with the Town of Georgina.
Still, the Town won’t guarantee that the graves will never be moved.
“There is no “guarantee” that the graves will never be moved, as future Town councils may take a different position on this cemetery. However, if the cemetery is moved, the town will be required to offer the property back to the adjacent owner for $17,000,” said Tanya Thompson, the Town’s communications manager, in an email to the Post.
That doesn’t sit well with Karen Wolfe, past president of the Georgina Historical Society, whose research on the cemetery led to council declaring it a heritage site.
“From my perspective, this cemetery is now in the public trust; it cannot be moved. It’s a designated site,” Wolfe said.
“The comments from the Town are very disturbing because my understanding of designated sites is they can’t be disturbed and any attempt to do so would garner a lot of push back from Pefferlaw residents.”
With the purchase of the cemetery, the Town is now responsible for its maintenance, including grass cutting. But the budget cost will be minimal as the cemetery is relatively small, according to Thompson.
The cemetery will also be included in the upcoming Pioneer Cemetery Assessment Study, intended to provide Town staff and council guidance on standards of upkeep associated with the town’s pioneer cemetery assets, as defined by applicable legislation.
“Improvements may include painting/preservation of the heritage wrought iron fence that encloses the space, the addition of an access gate/steps and appropriate signage to identify the cemetery,” Thompson added.
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