A story from the past, told with music: Discovery of old gravestone in Hatfield inspires a song and genealogical research

  • Julie Pokela, Justina Golden and Elizabeth Denny at the gravestone of Alice in Hatfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Pokela, Justina Golden and Elizabeth Denny sit at the 1899 gravesite in Hatfield of a girl named Alice, who died in 1863 and whose death was previously marked by a gravestone Pokela and Denny discovered on their Hatfield property. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Pokela, Justina Golden and Elizabeth Denny at the gravestone of Alice in Hatfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Pokela and Liz Denny of Hatfield discovered this worn gravestone, dating from the 1860s, in their backyard last fall; Pokela was inspired to write a song about it. Image courtesy Julie Pokela

Staff Writer
Published: 5/26/2022 8:01:43 PM

HATFIELD — When Liz Denny and Julie Pokela decided to clear an overgrown section of their lawn last year so that they could put in a gazebo, they didn’t know they’d uncover a small bit of local history.

Now, months later, their discovery has led to the creation of a song, “Alice,” that honors a young girl who died in 1863, recalls the loss of young men from the region during the U.S. Civil War, and recounts a mother’s memory of her child.

A video with the song will be posted to a blog on the Hatfield Historical Society website in honor of Memorial Day.

The song, whose lyrics are by Pokela and which is composed and sung by Justina Golden, a longtime vocal music teacher in the area, followed research Denny and Pokela did to try and uncover the origins of the worn gravestone, which they found buried under a layer of dirt and leaves in the backyard of their King Street home with only one legible word on it: “Alice.”

The couple sought help from Hatfield town officials and records, investigated online ancestry sites, and looked at local newspapers from over 150 years ago to learn more about their mysterious find. They were well-positioned to do the work: They previously ran Market Street Research in Northampton, then sold the company a few years ago and retired to Hatfield.

“My first thought when I came across [the gravestone] was ‘I hope there’s not an actual child buried  down there,’ ” said Denny. “And when I look back on it now, I’m astonished to think we were actually able to find out as much as we did.”

With help from Joe Lavallee from the Hatfield Cemetery Commission, the couple learned the gravestone was for a girl named Alice G. Bolter, who died in March 1863 a few months past her second birthday. Their backyard is not an actual burial site, Pokela and Denny say, and it’s not known why the stone was placed there.

The Bolter family, living at an unknown location in Hatfield at the time, later moved to Amherst, and in 1899 they placed a second gravestone in Alice’s memory in Hatfield’s West Street Cemetery, located on routes 5 & 10.

Pokela, who plays guitar and writes songs, says she wanted pretty early on to write a song about Alice, especially after Denny was able to learn more about the Bolter family.

“The fact that she died in 1863, when young men from Hatfield were fighting and dying in the Civil War, really resonated with me,” said Pokela.

She was particularly struck by a phrase on the girl’s 1899 gravestone: “The Lord Hath Need of Her.” She wondered what reasons the parents might have had for thinking the Lord needed their young daughter. Eventually, Pokela said, she imagined the toddler providing comfort to the young soldiers from this area killed in the Civil War, so she incorporated that idea in her song.

In “Alice,” a gentle folk tune built around minor chords played on acoustic guitar, Pokela also explores the historic barrier the Connecticut River posed to early residents in Hatfield when the town was part of Hadley and the community’s only church was located in Hadley; residents on the west side of the river eventually founded their own town with its own church.

In the song, which Pokela imagines being sung by Alice’s mother as a now-elderly woman looking back on her daughter’s death, the river becomes a metaphorical barrier as well as a physical one. The initial chorus in “Alice” includes the lines “I can’t cross the river, the river is wide / And the bridge to Heaven is closed on my side.”

But the chorus later changes as the elderly singer anticipates crossing the river to join Alice and the dead Civil War soldiers in heaven.

Pokela says she shares her song lyrics regularly with Justina Golden, who’s a friend as well as a voice teacher and singer, and she did that with the words from “Alice.” Golden than came up with a melody and arrangement for the song (and made a few lyric trims) and added lead and harmony vocals and some fingerpicked guitar. A small, second guitar part is played by Bob Castellano.

“I’m really thrilled with how this all came together,” said Pokela.

She and Denny also note that none of this might have happened without the pandemic. They wanted to have a gazebo in their backyard where friends and family could gather safely, so they cleared overgrown grass and shrubs to accommodate the structure. After getting their gazebo last summer, they were putting it away for the winter, and it’s when Denny was raking and cleaning up the area in October that they discovered the old gravestone.

Pokela says she and Golden also plan to add some fiddle to the recording of “Alice” a little further down the road to give the song “even more of a Civil War feel.” And at some point, Pokela added, “We’ll see about a live performance.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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