With tunes from the early 19th century drowning out the sounds of a brisk Veterans Day wind and 21st-century automobiles, a crowd of history buffs and former military members gathered at the small Ferry Road Cemetery in North Haven on Monday to celebrate the life of a local veteran, now deceased 200 years.Ten days after the 200th anniversary of John Payne Sr.’s death on November 1, 1813, North Haven Village historian and Vietnam War veteran Joe Zaykowski gave a brief lecture about Mr. Payne’s life, what is known of his combat record and his connections to the rest of the early North Haven families, some of whom also had relatives buried at the small, fenced-in site.
With a soon-to-be member of Mr. Payne’s family among the 50 or so people in the crowd—Alexandra Binder, a Shelter Island resident, is engaged to Beau Payne, a descendant of John Payne Sr., and was there representing the family on Monday and gathering information for their own family tree—Mr. Zaykowski’s brother-in-law, Phil Reynolds, played music on his saxophone dating back to the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, both of which Mr. Payne fought in.
The Payne family helped settle North Haven, even building the hamlet’s first bridge. John Sr. was a landowning farmer—or, as Mr. Zaykowski likes to say, a yeoman—before and after his time in the military.
In the long-neglected earth of the roadside cemetery, Mr. Payne’s headstone was badly deteriorated and cracked at the base when Mr. Zaykowski stumbled upon it.
“Living across the street, I’ve seen the stone and the cemetery for many years,” he said. “It needed lots of repairs, and for years nothing was getting done. It was sad looking. Once they deteriorate, they’re gone forever. Nature will take its course—so I decided to change the course.”
He set to work in the summer of 2012, taming the surrounding forest, mowing the grass, building a new gate for the 100-or-so-year-old fence and, most important, restoring, to the extent possible, the headstones.
Monday’s celebration was a means of honoring his newfound link to history while showing off his handiwork on the cemetery just down the road from his house.
“If we lose this, we lose our link to North Haven’s past. I didn’t do it for my own curiosity alone, I did it for the village, so I’m glad people got to see it,” he said the day after the event.
The historian found that five members of the Payne family are buried in the cemetery, with at least eight other early North Haven residents joining them in what Mr. Zaykowski said was common practice in those times: a homestead burial with a view of the sunset. The names of two are unknown, and Mr. Zaykowski hopes to learn as much as possible about them all.
“I’ve done a lot of research throughout the years on various early residents,” Mr. Zaykowski began on Tuesday, describing his passion for learning about other people’s families as well as his own. “I found out early on that the Paynes lived right up the road from my own house, which makes sense because the cemetery is so close to my house. But I found John fascinating and I started wondering, how far back does the history of these houses’ families go? It just snowballed.”
Evidence of Mr. Zaykowski’s research and meticulous planning for the event: He figured out that the epitaph on Mr. Payne’s headstone, a somber poem about flesh slumbering in the ground, was from a long since forgotten hymn by onetime music prodigy Isaac Watts, writer of the “Joy To The World” Christmas carol.
“I can’t tell you if he’s a ‘war hero.’ It is not important. He served his country,” said Mr. Zaykowski, noting that Mr. Payne received only one pound 19 shillings and one pent for his service.
Ms. Binder, herself a history buff who works for the Shelter Island Historical Society, said Monday’s ceremony reminded her of her soon-to-be proud family history.
“I’ve done a lot of research, but we’re still working on our family tree. Ours isn’t as extensive as what [Mr. Zaykowski] has on our family,” she said, adding that she has stockpiled some of the Payne family history at the Havens House building on Shelter Island. “It’s really cool to trace your family back that far, though, and I hope to get to work with Joe to find out more. We’ve had two Payne family descendants from around the country come [to the Havens House] and do some research, so it is a rich history.”
For his part, Mr. Zaykowski said he is going to continue his watch out for the cemetery’s well-being, although with little hope of finding any new information about those interred there. He said he is looking for other projects and is open to ideas. “Any little mystery document or family heirloom can lead to something much larger, it’s exciting,” he said.
Until then, he will continue honoring his mysterious neighbors at the cemetery—as he did Monday, concluding the service by simply saying, hand raised to his forehead and in front of Mr. Payne’s grave, “We salute you.”