|Weeds and broken stones are among the maintenance issues at Braintree’s Elm Street Cemetery, home to the grave of Benjamin Vinton French. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)|
Braintree moves to preserve 1716 burial ground
Elm Street Cemetery is one of oldest in area
In 1716, townspeople purchased land for a burial ground in what was then Braintree’s Middle Precinct. Three centuries later, the Elm Street Cemetery remains a quiet link to the town’s rich history. Buried beneath the soil of the old town-owned graveyard are members of leading Braintree families through the centuries, including Revolutionary War soldiers.
But concerned that age and the actions of vandals over the years have taken their toll on the graveyard, town officials have launched an effort to give the site the special attention they say it needs.
Braintree recently hired a consultant to prepare a preservation management plan for the 1.4-acre cemetery, located across from what was originally a Colonial-era meeting house and is today the first Congregational Church of Braintree. Officials say the planning effort should position the town to secure funding to carry out that work.
“The Elm Street Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in the area. It has tremendous historical interest. We certainly want to protect it as well as document it,’’ said Christine Stickney, Braintree’s director of planning and community development.
Ronald Frazier, vice chairman of the town’s Historical Commission, said he is thrilled the town is taking the first steps toward conserving the cemetery, long a goal of his group.
The cemetery’s deterioration is evident in stones that are toppled, broken, or missing, Frazier said. There is also some graffiti on the stones and monuments, and fences broken or missing.
“A lot of Braintree’s history is being lost,’’ he said. “The lasting monuments to people are their gravestones and their cemeteries, and as these things get damaged, lost, or stolen, we lose the visible evidence of their existence.’’
Much of the damage is decades-old, and the Cemetery Department has done a good job in recent years keeping the site mowed and cleaned, Frazier said. But “they do not have the expertise to reverse the damage that has been done in there over the years and document what may have been lost.’’
In 1999, a state-funded study gave the town a preliminary look at some of the rehabilitation the Elm Street Cemetery needs. But Frazier said the town had no money then to do any further planning or repairs.
That changed after Braintree passed the Community Preservation Act in 2002, which allows cities and towns to generate funds through a tax surcharge — matched with state dollars — to support preservation projects. In 2007, Town Meeting appropriated $19,000 from the town’s CPA fund for the planning study.
The start of the project was set back by Braintree’s transition to a new form of government, a delay that added to the cost. But the Town Council earlier this year authorized another $3,000 from the preservation fund to cover those added costs, and last month the consultant, Barbara Donohue, began work.
Donohue, an archeologist who has prepared similar cemetery plans for other communities, including Dedham and North Attleborough, said a key part of her work will be to research old town, church, and land records and other source materials to get a clearer idea of the cemetery’s history.
Previous research has offered a sketch of that story. According to Frazier, Braintree in 1716 encompassed modern-day Braintree, Holbrook, Randolph, and Quincy. The Elm Street Cemetery was the first to open in the town’s then Middle Precinct, which is today’s Braintree. A previous cemetery had opened in what is now Quincy.
According to the 1999 state consultant’s report, a town committee was appointed in 1713 to establish a burying ground in the Middle Precinct, and in 1716 the Elm Street site was purchased for 10 pounds. The first burial occurred that year when Elizabeth Niles, wife of the local pastor, was interred “with stones over the grave as a protection against wolves.’’
The Braintree residents laid to rest in the cemetery included such prominent figures as Benjamin Vinton French, a founder of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, who died in 1860, and General Sylvanus Thayer, one of the first superintendents of the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Thayer was buried in the cemetery in 1872, but his body was relocated five years later to the cemetery at West Point.
The church’s sexton helped with the upkeep of the cemetery for many years, and in 1892, the First Parish Association incorporated for the purpose of establishing a fund to provide for the care and repair of the cemetery.
The town acquired the site and the cemetery’s fund from the First Parish Association in 1964, according to the state report.
Donohue said her study will also assess the condition of the stones, landscaping, and fences, and offer recommendations for repairs and upkeep. The stone assessment will be carried out by a subcontractor, Michael Trinkley, with expertise in that field. Another subcontractor, Russell Kempton, will conduct a limited survey with ground-penetrating radar to explore subsurface conditions.
The results of the study, expected to take about eight months, could help raise awareness among townspeople about the important place of the cemetery in the development of Braintree and to ensure its protection for future generations.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.