Feature Story

The Restoration of Northfield's Oldest Cemetery

In November 2009 Sarah Matthews was walking across the soccer fields down by the Dog River on the west side of the Norwich University campus. She came across a small cemetery plot in great disrepair in the middle of the pitch. The largest stone was split in half by two large bullet holes. Curiosity led her to jot down the names on the few stones which led to library research and word of mouth. It turned out that Matthews had rediscovered Stanton Richardson and family, some of the original founders of Northfield. Matthews wrote a letter to the editor of the Northfield News, saying something should be done to recover this historic cemetery.

Northfield was chartered in 1781. Stanton and Anna Richardson arrived from Westminster, Vermont in 1785. The Richardsons settled near the Dog River, built a log home, farmed, and raised eleven children. Stanton was elected Selectman and Lister at the first Northfield town meeting in 1794. The Northfield Town History Committee relates in Green Mountain Heritage:

As the town grew it was obvious that an official burying ground was needed. In 1796 Stanton Richardson, William Ashcroft and Aquillo Jones were appointed a committee to procure two burying places. No further action appears to have been taken until 1811 when Stanton Richardson gave land east of Dog River across from his home to the town, ‘for the use of said town for to bury their dead, this lease including the within privileges thereto belonging, to them, the said inhabitants of Northfield, and their heirs and assigns, for their own use, benefit, and behoof, as long as wood grows and water runs.’

This plot of land, known as Richardson’s Meadow, was used as the town cemetery until 1823 when all the graves, except those of the Richardson family, were moved elsewhere…

Many of the old gravestones in Northfield are made of slate. A tenacious moss frequently clings to marble slabs, but inscriptions on the slate stones remain remarkably clear and legible. In 1966, Stanton Richardson’s slate stone lay half buried in the old abandoned cemetery, but when resurrected by the town selectman and set upright in its original position the inscription was so legible that it could be read from some distance. Unfortunately, a short time later it was used as a rifle target so that a large hole now gapes near the top of the stone.

Matthews’ letter brought this response to the December 2009 Northfield News:

The Board of Managers of the Northfield Historical Society has made a commitment that we, as a membership, will support the restoration of the Richardson Cemetery.

Fast forward to the Tunbridge World’s Fairgrounds June 2014. The Vermont Historical Society is holding their biennial History Exposition. The Northfield Historical Society is displaying Stanton Richardson’s massive black slate headstone, bullet holes and all. It is rich with funerary symbolism including cinerary urn, weeping willow, columbarium, primrose and vase, and scallop shell. The Society has restored the cemetery, replaced Stanton’s stone with an incredible replica, and has made the restoration project a centerpiece of the Society’s permanent display in their home on Main Street near the Norwich campus.

Having been delighted by the display in Tunbridge, I visited the Historical Society on Labor Day weekend to be awed at the most wonderful display of the Richardson Cemetery restoration. It just so happened that Linda DeNeergaard, who did the conservation rubbings of the existing eleven gravestones and produced the template used in the carving of Stanton Richardson's new stone, walked in. Linda related her painstaking process in creating the template for the new stone and we discussed cemetery symbolism, burial practices and history of the Richardson family. Kay Schlueter, Collections Cataloger and Karen Halsted, Society President related the larger details of the project including the generosity of many donors.

With the groundwork laid, I drove to the west side of the Dog River, parked at the Norwich Rugby Club, walked across the field, crossed the foot bridge over the Dog River, wound my way through brush paths, and entered the soccer fields. There, in the middle of the soccer fields, in the former Richardson’s Meadow, was a little raised island with a white rail fence: Richardson Cemetery. The pictures tell the rest of the story.

The Vermont Old Cemetery Association congratulates the Northfield Historical Society and thanks its members, donors, volunteers and the people of Northfield. You have raised the bar for all of us involved in cemetery preservation in Vermont.

Click here to visit the Northfield Historical Society.

Barry Trutor, VOCA Member