Cemetery Restoration in the Fall

By Chris

With the coming of Halloween it’s important to remember that our historic cemeteries have served to protect and separate the dead from the living. Deep graves, gates and fences, charnel houses, metal vaults, and the patrols of the sexton have served this purpose. Cemeteries have also been the place to honor and remember the dead in rural communities throughout the US. Funerary monuments display wealth, insignia of organizations, and symbols of a person’s livelihood. Epitaphs carved into the stone speak of religious and political beliefs and the feelings of those left behind.

Cemeteries are protected places where families and friends can return to remember and where a sapling planted at the foot of a grave may grow to a mighty tree. Cemeteries are also quiet libraries for historians. Cemetery research takes the historian and genealogist into the sun to look for lost stories on gravestones.

Dozens of family and community cemeteries are located in Tompkins County. Among these is the Connecticut Hill Cemetery in the western part of the Town of Newfield. This cemetery was established alongside of Schoolhouse #14 in the early 1900s by a farming and dairy community. This portion of land (once owned by the State of Connecticut) is located at the highest portion of the county within the region of rocky and rolling hills between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.

The Hill community used this cemetery for nearly a century from 1823 to 1917. Members of 23 families from across the town buried their dead here. The most common names include Brown, Congdon, Marsh, Powers, Snyder, Tracy and Whitney. Many families left the area during the mid 1900s due to the difficulty of farming this rocky soil. But maps show that this cemetery remained important for them long after they had moved off the Hill.

Local and state archives and local historians like the late Neil Poppensiek have been great sources of information on the Hill. They tell stories of strong community bonds revolving around dairy and subsistence farming, soldiers returning from southern battles, and the unusual manufacture of washboards. But there remain many unanswered questions and untold stories.

The greatest source of answers is chiseled into stone and is lying in pieces underneath pines and vine. Grievously, over the past three decades this cemetery has been brutally vandalized. Every marker is knocked over or broken and several grave shafts have been violated.

There is evidence for the grisly excavation of grave shafts and the possible disappearance of markers and skeletal remains from the cemetery. Though these excavations are only four feet deep they may have reached the caskets. Graves in the 1900s seldom were excavated six feet deep. The Tompkins County Sheriff and the Department of Environmental Conservation regularly patrol this isolated area, yet abuses continue.

Volunteers from HAZEx and the History Center in Tompkins County and the cultural resource community at large planned a series of workdays to record and restore this important cemetery. Young and old were invited to visit the cemetery and watch the operations and it was a great success. A recent drive up Connecticut Hill Road shows me that good works last.

Thanks for reading my blog. For more information on cemetery restoration please contact me at Chris@HAZExplorations.com.

Leave a Comment