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Grave year for historic Fairfield cemetery; cleanup planned

Published 4:01 pm, Wednesday, August 25, 2010

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  • The Greenfield Hill Cemetary, on Bronson Road, occupies a football field-sized area that slopes at a progressively steeper pitch from the street. A clean-up organized for Sat., Sep. 25, will clear out branches, bushes and weeds from the bottom half. Photo: Tim Loh / Fairfield Citizen
    The Greenfield Hill Cemetary, on Bronson Road, occupies a football field-sized area that slopes at a progressively steeper pitch from the street. A clean-up organized for Sat., Sep. 25, will clear out branches, bushes and weeds from the bottom half. Photo: Tim Loh

 

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For 182 years, Jesse Nichols rested in peace.

Then, on May 8, a tree fell and chopped her headstone in half.

"It was mind-boggling," says Melanie Marks, the unofficial curator of the Greenfield Hill Cemetery. "I was afraid to drive down Bronson Road and see what happened."

This has been a particularly rough year for the Greenfield Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 100 Revolutionary War veterans, which dates back to the 1720s.

During the March nor'easter, seven trees came crashing down, shattering several gravestones and damaging the stone wall encircling the site. The Department of Public Works removed the tree trunks, and made some minor repairs to the site, says Marks.

Then came the storm in May, which arrived just after the Fairfield Historical Society wrapped up a re-enactor-led tour through the graveyard.

Then a third big storm ripped through in July, toppling even more headstones and tilting a few trees to dangerous angles.

Fairfield was able to pull in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove the threatening trees, Marks says. But considerable cleanup work remains, so Marks is organizing a cleanup for Saturday, Sept. 25, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., co-sponsored by the Greenfield Hill Village Improvement Society.

That will be the fourth cleanup at the cemetery since 1953, according to Marks. It will be the third cleanup since September 2008, which is when Marks started planning them.

The last two were focused on restoring headstones. Twenty-five headstones were reset in April 2009. They now stand straight and bright, like healthy teeth amid rows of jagged, crooked ones in need of fluoride and braces.

For the September cleanup, Marks wants to address landscaping issues brought to light by the collapsing trees and snapping headstones. Specifically, she wants to clear out the back half of the cemetery, which is hard to see from Bronson Road.

That area drops off at a progressively steeper pitch, beginning where the cemetery's regularly mowed lawn gives way to a thicket of brambles, bushes, tree trunks and weeds. There are gravestones there. Some of them poke up like Grecian ruins. Others lie hidden beneath the thick vegetation.

Scanning that area Monday afternoon, Marks pointed out some of the graves.

"These people, and I say people, deserve better than this," she said. "It's a shame when you see all these headstones lying around like nobody cares."

Marks, of course, cares. She's been crazy about graveyards for six or seven years now, though she's only been crazy about this one since April 2008. That's when she stumbled upon Abigail Banks. Banks has never met Marks. She died in 1841, at 54 years of age.

If the volunteer turnout next month is as large as it was during the last two cleanups, Marks thinks landscaping work will be achievable in a single day. There were around 50 volunteers in each of the past two cleanups, she says, with lots of high school students showing up. She'll sign slips attesting to anyone's volunteer work.

There are other incentives, Marks says, such as the chance to grow familiar with some of Fairfield's most important historical figures and families. Take, for example, Dr. Isaac Bronson, who's buried here. He's said to have planted the area's first dogwood tree. And so is his son, Frederick Bronson, buried here. Frederick reputedly paid for the paving of the road -- subsequently renamed Bronson Road -- that connects the cemetery area with the rest of the town.

"And we provide lunch and refreshments," Marks adds.

While she's looking for anyone willing to volunteer, Marks says she's particularly hoping for "big, heavy, strong boys" who will have no trouble carrying sticks, branches and sacks of weeds uphill to the dumpsters that will be located along Bronson Road. During a similar cleanup of an Easton cemetery recently, a high school football team showed up, Marks says.

"We're looking for lots of manpower," she says.

The next cleanup will take place in April, Marks says. That one will return to the task of restoring damaged headstones, cleaning dirty ones, buttressing leaning ones, and putting back into place some of the many headstones scattered along the cemetery's stone wall, or elsewhere.

Which brings us back to the story of Marks and Abigail Banks.

In late 2007, Marks and her husband bought an 18th-century barn at the northern tip of Redding Road, near the Easton border. When they started renovating the barn, someone suggested Marks get in touch an Easton woman, Winifred Kent, who's now in her 90s. Kent worked in the barn during the 1930s -- back when it served as a boarding house.

Marks obliged. On the first day they met, Marks and Kent drove around Greenfield Hill for four hours, Marks recalls, with Kent rattling off an endless stream of local lore. Marks went home and fact-checked.

"And all the information was dead on," she says.

Included in the yarn was this: There's a headstone lying in your new basement.

Intrigued, Marks and her husband tip-toed into their new cellar in April 2008, with Marks shining a flashlight, her husband heading down first.

"And I said, stop! You're standing on it!" she recalls.

Abigail Bank's headstone was face down on the cellar floor, right where it'd been left decades ago. The Marks propped it against the wall and examined it.

After some research, Marks discovered where the headstone belonged -- in the Greenfield Hill Cemetery, which she'd previously visited several times while researching other people who'd been buried there.

While returning Abigail Banks' headstone though, Marks says she saw, for the first time, the entire cemetery for the graves.

"When your goal is to look at just one headstone, you're not looking at the whole picture," she says. "So that's when I started the cleanups."

While Greenfield Hill Cemetery is her focus, Marks says there's never a graveyard she doesn't want to explore.

Last week, for example, while driving with her husband down the Eastern seaboard, she spotted seven headstones poking up beneath a billboard in Lumberton, N.C.

Her husband saw her fidgeting.

"Absolutely not," he said.