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A Historic Cemetery Wins New Friends

This story, by Kevin Flood, was published Nov. 26, 2000 in the Connecticut Weekly section of The New York Times.

Since Hartford is a city where addressing the needs of living residents has officials running from one crisis to the next, caring for the dead ones tends to be a low priority.

Crumbling gravestone

The condition of the Old South Burying Ground had not changed much by 2006, when this photo was taken.

One result is the deterioration of a South End cemetery where about 200 of Hartford's early residents, including at least 12 Revolutionary War veterans, are buried. Many of the sandstone markers in the Old South Burying Ground, a city-owned tract off Maple Avenue, have fallen or have lost their inscriptions to the elements.

But a handful of neighborhood residents see potential in Old South. They said the place should be repaired and beautified, not just out of respect for those interred there, but also to give the city an educational opportunity and possibly even a tourist attraction.

They've taken matters into their own hands by organizing and incorporating Friends of the Old South Burying Ground. Once it gains tax-exempt status, the group will raise money for rehabilitation work. In the meantime, with the help of volunteers from Trinity College, the Boy Scouts and the Connecticut Gravestone Network, a hobbyist group, it has cleaned and reset some stones.

In addition, the Manchester engineering firm Fuss & O'Neill has begun—at no charge—a ground-penetrating radar scan of the cemetery to identify sunken stones and any unmarked graves.

"It's hard to blame anyone for what's happened here," Paul Shipman, a leader of the group, said during a recent tour of the cemetery. "We just believe that it could be a wonderful resource."

For starters, Mr. Shipman hopes to see students at the neighboring Fox Elementary School use the cemetery as a place to learn everything from history to science. Another association member, Susan Lang, believes Old South could join the other historic cemeteries that are visited by the flocks of baby boomers who have acquired an interest in genealogy.

"It's incredible the number of people who travel to see these things," she said.

But for now, the cemetery is barely noticeable, much less a tourist draw. Of the tombstones still standing, some are no more than nubs. Others have sunk or have settled backward. Association members wondered why some otherwise-intact stones had no inscriptions—until they realized these weren't tombstones at all, but slabs fallen from table-shape monuments. Previous caretakers had simply stuck them in the ground, unable to repair them.

One blessing of all this neglect is that vandalism at the Old South Burying Ground has been relatively minor, said another member of the group, Byron S. Benton. "'Mostly, they've just been let go," he said.

Mr. Benton has traced ownership of the property back to the time in 1663 when the city confiscated it from Nathaniel Greensmith, who was hanged during the Hartford Witchcraft Panic, a predecessor of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts.

An ancestor of Mr. Benton, Andrew Benton, bought the land from the city and made it part of his farm. It remained in the family until 1783, when it was acquired by Thomas Y. Seymour, a Revolutionary War veteran who had helped found one of the nation's first calvary regiments and went on to become a state prosecutor, an organizer of the Governor's Horse Guards and member of an antislavery society.

Seymour allowed the Benton family to continue its practice of burying family members on the property. The city didn't begin burials until 1801, after it had paid Seymour $400 for four acres. The first person laid there was 10-month-old Walter Robbins Jr. The association has wrapped a pink ribbon around his headstone.

"Our little Walter," Benton said as he pointed out the grave to a visitor.

Seymour was buried in Old South in 1811, and use of the cemetery continued until it tapered off around 1850. The last burial occurred in 1872, two years after the city opened another cemetery in the South End, Cedar Hill. That leaves a mystery for the association, since much of the back end of Old South appears empty. Mr. Shipman and others wonder if the section contains unmarked graves.

"We're hoping the radar will provide some answers," Mr. Shipman said, noting that the equipment being used can penetrate up to 10 feet of earth.

'You just think it's someone else's job'

Apparently, worries over the cemetery's fate emerged not long after it closed. Ms. Lang said documents indicate that city officials had upkeep concerns as much as a century ago.

Janet Wallace, who has an ancestor buried in Old South, recalled becoming concerned nearly 50 years ago, while attending high school in what's now the Fox school. She had assumed, though, that others had noticed the situation, too, and would act.

"You just think it's someone else's job," she said.

Ms. Wallace eventually moved to Wethersfield but drove by the cemetery every Sunday on her way to the South Congregational Church. Her anxiety mounted as she saw the property's deterioration continue.

For most association members, the galvanizing moment came when the Public Works Department, hoping at least to keep the cemetery secure, removed the remnants of a wrought-iron fence and put up a generic chain-link one. By complaining individually to the city, future Friends of the Old South Burying Ground "just sort of found each other," Mr. Shipman said.

One of the group's goals is to erect a more attractive fence eventually. The chain-link one "is ugly, but I guess it's well-intentioned," Mr. Shipman said.

Indeed, members say they're sympathetic when City Hall cites budget constraints as the reason for not doing much more than cutting the grass.

"The city has to decide, 'Well, do we do something for the cemetery or do we do something in the parks for the kids?' '' Ms. Lang said. ''You can guess which one gets the money."

Roosevelt Terry, supervisor of city cemeteries, said he had enacted a plan for improving Old South and other historic Hartford cemeteries, including the much larger Old North Cemetery in the North End and the Ancient Burying Ground downtown, where the city's first settlers are interred. But with amounts like $6,000 a year to care for the 12,000 graves in Old North, there's only so much that can be done, he said.

"I've been fortunate to have some very good neighbors to work with, but these things take time," he said.

Norma Williams, head of the Connecticut chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, is organizing a group to care for the Old North Cemetery. She has a particular interest in this cemetery because it holds the tomb of Frederick Law Olmsted, who was in many ways the founder of modern landscape architecture and was the designer of New York City's Central Park and the United States Capitol grounds. While the Olmsted family tomb is in good condition, it is surrounded by the same sort of decay and damage afflicting the Old South Burying Ground.

Ms. Williams said the city, after realizing a few years ago how badly it had neglected its cemeteries, has been more conscientious about at least cutting the grass and picking up trash. "When I first went up there a few years ago," she said, "'the grass would be up to your waist and there would be bottles and God knows what else lying around."'

But while Mr. Terry and his crews have done the best they can with the money and tools available to them, the "bigger issues"—like repairing the grave stones and markers—remain ignored, she said.

Sometimes, cutting the grass has added to the damage. In both cemeteries, some stones bear thin horizontal scars from grass-trimmer blades. "Trying to mow around all those grave stones is just about impossible," at least with regular equipment, said Ms. Williams of the landscape architects society. "It's going to be expensive to do the work in a way that doesn't damage the stones."'

"With money," she added, "you can do anything."