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Column: Old cemeteries unfold local history

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Published South Jeff Journal, May 2015

By Heather Berry

I’ve learned a lot about cemeteries in the past few weeks.

To begin with, there’s a lot more to caretaking a cemetery, especially an active cemetery, than one might expect. There are rules and legalities and accounts which, at least in this area, require the attention of a small group of individuals, who usually have little help.

I listened to Wilbur Lennox, caretaker for the Smithville Cemetery since 1959, as he described his frustrations over the thousands of dollars the state sets aside to combat vandalism when, in Wilbur’s case, hasn’t been a case of vandalism since he began.

I also learned the sad condition of many of the region’s older cemeteries. Without volunteers like the American Legion, VFW, Henderson Men’s Club and historical societies, many of these old grave markers would be lost forever, with their namesakes forgotten.

And, I learned how important it is to save these grave makers because of the men and women they represent.

I stood before the grave marker of Theodore Washington Holley who died at the age of 23 years old. Debbie Quick described Theodore as one of the Holley brothers. Captured at Gettysburg and sent to die at Andersonville. This young man experienced two pivotal events in our nation’s history.

When I asked some students at South Jefferson High School this week to estimate the number of Revolutionary War veterans buried in southern Jefferson County, I was unsure of the answer. Like them, I never anticipated it would be as high as 227.

Jefferson County has 500 Revolutionary War soldiers resting in its soil.

It’s easy to drive past these old cemeteries with their aging grave markers and pay no notice. As part of the cemetery story featured on the front page, however, I was able to take the time to walk among the gravestones in Pierrepont Manor, Smithville and elsewhere in the region.

I learned how members of the community have taken it upon themselves to clean and reset many of the fallen grave markers. I listened to Debbie Quick tell me the proper way to replant a gravestone, using gravel to support the stone.

I listened as she described a stone in Ellisburg she is putting together like a jigsaw. The grave maker is in six pieces and she is waiting for the special glue required to put the pieces back together again. With the help of several others, Debbie plans to glue the stone back together and replant it above the Revolutionary War veteran it’s meant to honor.

When I asked Henderson Town Historian Eric Anderson what he would tell people when it came to these old cemeteries, he responded, “Visit them.”

And, he right.

I would strongly suggest, as sobering as it may be, to take some time to visit an old cemetery. Once you are face-to-stone with a war hero, you look at these cemeteries differently. Memorial Day is different; its less pageantry and more reality.

In the words of George Washington, “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”