Feature Story

Gone, But Not Forgotten

The Vermont Old Cemetery Association Fights to Keep the State's Burial Grounds Alive


Editor’s note: Nineteen years ago, in the Spring 1998 Vermont Life magazine, this 5 page article appeared. The article remains just as cogent and inspiring today.

WHEN VERMONTERS abandoned their hill farms in the second half of the 19th century, the forest grew back quickly, obliterating most traces of settlement — except for things made of stone: stone foundations, stone walls and gravestones. Life was difficult, often short, but the gravestones at least seemed as permanent as the rocky hills that surrounded them.

Once these cemeteries were abandoned, though, the stones proved nearly as frail as the lives they marked: Storms battered them; tree roots un-seated them; lichens colonized them; rodents undermined them; weeds obscured them; vandals overturned them; cows leaned on them; acid rain dissolved them; and frost heaved them. From year to year, a hunter might come upon a row of leaning stones deep in the forest, but otherwise they went unnoticed. Many of the earliest grave markers had been made of soft stone that proved especially vulnerable to the weather: In the silence of the passing years, slate flaked, marble crumbled.

In 1958, a retired English professor from the University of Vermont, Leon W. Dean, decided that it was time to do something about the dire state of Vermont's abandoned cemeteries. He advertised in state newspapers for people with similar concerns, and a small group met that fall and organized themselves into the Vermont Old Cemetery Association. Dean served as president for the group's first eight years, and remained active in it until his death in 1982.

This was, and still is, a low-key, grassroots organization. At first, the annual dues were one dollar; they've since jumped to five. The membership has grown to 640 people. A more congenial group would be hard to find. They seem to go about their work with a healthy dose of sell-deprecating good humor: The officers, for instance, are known as "headstones," the board members are "footstones." They tend to be above middle-age and they cheerily take on the work of cemetery restoration with little expectation of recognition, but simply out of the conviction that it should be done.

VOCA doesn't do the actual cemetery restoration work itself, but it does inform, encourage and, most directly, disburse grants (typically $300) to groups doing the restoring — cemetery associations, churches, Boy or Girl Scout troops, historical societies, and volunteers who simply take it upon themselves to restore an old cemetery.

Many towns have done a great job fixing up cemeteries in the middle of town," said VOCA president Elizabeth Beckwith. "Our focus is on the abandoned and neglected cemetery that is out in the woods and hills — the little one that's in the middle of a cornfield, or out in the forest, or in someone's backyard. These people [buried there] are entitled to every bit of dignity and respect we can give them. [But] it takes a certain amount of gung-ho-ness to get out and work on these cemeteries!' Often it takes a particular person's special interest in a cemetery to start the restoration process moving — a person like the descendant of someone buried there, or perhaps just someone who has come across an abandoned cemetery and decided that it should be restored.

That's what Betty Bell of New Haven, one of VOCA’s footstones, decided a few years ago about a neglected cemetery in the southwest corner of her town. It was so far gone that it was known simply as "the abandoned cemetery."

Betty Bell is a person of enormous energy and determination; when she decides that something should happen, it's usually a safe bet that it will. She retired from working at the B. F. Goodrich plant in Vergennes a few years ago, at the age of 69, she single-handedly maintains the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, mows the lawns of 16 houses in the area and works as a consultant to other cemetery restorers.

When she decided to restore the cemetery, the first thing she did was to visit the New Haven select board and let them know they faced serious legal consequences if they continued to neglect their duty to maintain this cemetery. Bell was well known to the board (she grew up in town) and its members quickly saw that she was right. They agreed to send the town road out to deliver some loam (to fill in sunken graves), to erect a fence to keep cattle out of the cemetery, and help clear the brush.

Bell took me out there one spring day in her four-wheel-drive pickup -- half-a-mile over a rutted farm road from the nearest highway. “Oh, it was brush,” she said as we walked through the cemetery, a herd of cattle grazing on the outside of the fence. "Five of us were lugging brush all day long.” Once the brush was cleared and the fence erected, Bell and a handful of volunteers did the rest: repairing and raising the fallen stones.

She pointed out one big stone. "Let me tell you, trying to get that thing out of the ground — it must have weighed 400 pounds. It was way down in the ground. We couldn't even see it, the other girl and I. We got it up — two-by-fours, crowbar, ax.”

They glued the broken stones hack together and poured new concrete “foundations" for stones that had lost theirs. Several of the stones had the same family name, Everts or Evarts (some descendants still live in the area), so Bell suggested to the select board that the name he changed from the "abandoned cemetery" to "Evarts Cemetery." They agreed.

There had been plenty of time for this cemetery to deteriorate. The first burial was in 1800, the last in the late 1800s. But regardless of the time that had passed, to Betty Bell, the people buried there are real. "These people would have had a fit if they saw what I saw when I came here,” she said. “I like to mow the grass, to trim around things. It looks so nice when you get it all done. I care about people, live ones and dead ones. My daughter says if anybody could hear me at night talking to these people down in the cemetery. 'Just wait till they answer you back,’ she said. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘they have already answered me back.’ “

Not every cemetery has a force of nature like Betty Bell to look out for it. Sometimes, when a group decides to restore a cemetery, they hire a professional to do the work. That's what the members of the South Starksboro Friends Meeting did when they received an unexpected gift toward restoring their old cemetery from a descendant of someone buried there.

The South Starksboro Friends Meeting House and its cemetery are up a dirt road, up a steep hill, in a remote and strikingly pretty spot. It's something of a lesson in Vermont history just to realize that in this high hill country there were once enough Vermonters — enough Vermont Quakers — within horse and wagon range to establish this meeting house. It was built in 1826 and the cemetery was established the same year. The Meeting has had its ups and downs in the years since and, while the cemetery has always been mowed, many of the stones have suffered the ravages of time.

"Until last summer," said Elise Barash, a member of the Meeting who led the effort to restore the cemetery, "a lot of these stones, 92 of them, were very much askew. They were either flat on the ground, or they were leaning in one direction or the other ... But because of the fact that the written history [of the Meeting] has been so spotty, the stones and the cemetery that we look out on are very significant to us because this is our history."

After months of discussion, Meeting members agreed to have the stones straightened and repaired, but not cleaned. "The feeling is — and very deeply felt in the group — that the cleaning does something to them," said Barash. "It's like putting a lot of makeup on your face when there are lots of lines. Covering over something that has aged naturally, and it is our history."

Eventually, Barash called VOCA's Elizabeth Beckwith, who gave her a list of cemetery restorers; a VOCA grant was also forthcoming. The South Starksboro Friends gave the job to Jeffrey Kuhn of South Hero, who agreed to straighten he stones by setting them in tamped gravel rather than concrete. "In the end," Barash said, "everybody [in the Meeting], including the ones who gave way a little reluctantly, were just thrilled when they saw what a difference it made. Now, everybody's standing straight, instead of lying down."

Once a cemetery is restored, it can assume a new role as a source of historical and genealogical information. Elizabeth Beckwith said that VOCA (and cemetery restoration efforts in general) have gotten a boost from the interest in family genealogy that she traces to the popularity of Roots in the 1970s. One of VOCA’s significant accomplishments in the last couple of years has been production of a curriculum packet for 4th to 12th grade teachers. Stones and Bones: Using Tombstones as Textbooks uses the study of cemeteries for further investigation into fields as diverse as history, geology, sociology and art. It includes a list of four VOCA members who are high school teachers (including Charlie Marchant -- page 55) who will help other teachers get started with the program.

"It's a hands-on experience for the kids," Elizabeth Beckwith said of class visits to old cemeteries. “It makes them feel part of the community. Kids get excited to think that this guy was buried in the 1700 and his names is just like my name.”

But the heart of VOCA’s mission remains the restoration of abandoned cemeteries, and they have plenty of work still to do. The group estimates that there are about 1000 neglected cemeteries in Vermont (out of a total of about 1,900).

I'd heard about restoration project under way at a cemetery in Jericho Center, and on a bright, late-spring day I caught up with professional restorers Winton Walbridge and Jean Parent, both retired stone workers from the quarries around Bane.

The Jericho Center Cemetery is unusual in that, even though it looks like a single cemetery, half of it is owned and maintained by the town; the other half belongs to the Jericho Center Cemetery Association. Walbridge and Parent were working on the association's half. Like the cemetery in South Starksboro, the grass here had always been mowed, so there was no brush to clear, but many of the stones had fallen and sunk into the sod.

Working at the Jericho Center Cemetery, Winton Walbridge and his son Kevin replace a fallen headstone. Right, Winton applies epoxy; below, Kevin squares off a stone so that it can be erected again.

Walbridge and Parent had already cleaned the stones with water from a high-pressure hose, and now were working on repairing and resetting the fallen ones. They had glued several stones already that morning, and these were propped with sticks while the glue dried. They were also resetting stones that had fallen whole from their foundations. As I walked up, they wrestled one big stone up into place to see how it would fit. “Generally, we have some younger boys with us to do the heavy work," Walbridge grunted as they tipped it up. They rocked it back and forth a little to check the fit. Not bad. Parent tipped the stone forward again and Walbridge troweled some mortar under it. They checked the fit, and added a bit more. They tipped it into place, checked it for plumb, and moved on to the next. The next stone had such a rounded bottom that no amount of mortar would hold it in its foundation. So Winton started up a portable generator and squared off the bottom with a stonecutting saw. As the stone dust flew, my attention was diverted by the carvings on some nearby stones, and the stories tersely implied by each:

Oliver J Spooner / July 12 1864 /
Ae 19 yrs / Amidst the patriot band /
Who died to save the land /
Our son was slain.

Ezra F Elliot / Aug 3 1850
May 7 1897 / Killed by a premature
explosion in a mine at Mt Rosa Colorado

Harvey E / Son of EH and MI Blakely
Died Sept 4 1899 / Ae 2 days

Isabella Martin, secretary of the Jericho Center Cemetery Association, stopped by to see the progress. She said the association had sponsored a fund raising drive in the town, and that the money raised, along with a VOCA grant and an anonymous donation, had financed the restoration. I asked her why she had spearheaded this work. "I like cemeteries," she said. "I grew up in a little town with a cemetery full of my ancestors. It wasn't spooky to me. It was a place to go and see your family.”

How to Help

The Vermont Old Cemetery Association welcomes new members. Dues are $5 per year, or $20 for five years. You’ll receive a subscription to its quarterly newsletter and an invitation to the twice-yearly meeting, held the first Saturdays of May and October. Send check, payable to VOCA, to Richard Jacobson, Treasurer, 7 Harbor Ridge Road, South Burlington, VT 05403.

The Burial Grounds of Vermont, a statewide listing of all Vermont cemeteries that includes maps, is available from VOCA secretary Charlie Marchant, P.O. Box 132, Townshend, VT 05353. The educator's packet Stones and Bones: Using Tombstones as Textbooks is available from Marchant for $7.50 postpaid.