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Peggy Bunnell walks through the old Biddle family cemetery on East Middle Patent Road in Stamford
Peggy Bunnell walks through the old Biddle family cemetery on East Middle Patent Road in Stamford. Bunnell, who has lived near the cemetery since 1944, is concerned because nearby construction of a home has resulted in most of the trees around the burial ground being cut down.
June 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

The following is a story discussing old cemeteries, courtesy The Advocate

June 1, 2004
Development threatens ancient cemeteries
By Angela Carella
Assistant City Editor

More than two centuries ago, in what is now North Stamford and neighboring sections of Greenwich and Westchester County , N.Y. , the Dibbles and a handful of other families grew potatoes.

They were prodigious farmers, sometimes working by moonlight to stack potatoes on horse-drawn carts and travel to the Cos Cob section of Greenwich , where they loaded the potatoes onto packet boats that sailed for New York City.

The Dibbles and their neighbors were so productive that, for decades, they controlled the price of potatoes in the New York market, said Doris Finch Watson, the historian for North Castle , N.Y. , where the Dibble family also has a history.

When the farmers weren't growing potatoes, they were making shoes, Watson said.

"At night, whole families would sit around kerosene lamps to work on shoes to make extra money," she said. "They would bring the shoes to the store and get credit against their accounts to buy kerosene, sugar, coffee, tea, whatever they needed. They paid in shoes instead of cash."

The Dibbles' industriousness helped build a nation.

What remains of the Stamford Dibbles, who can be traced to the city's founding in 1641, is a cemetery on East Middle Patent Road.

From 1760 to 1828, they buried their dead in what must have been unused farmland. In years when there was money, tombstones were carved to mark the graves. Otherwise, survivors found fieldstones shaped like tombstones, flat and rounded at the top, and planted them upright at the head of graves.

The Dibble cemetery is surrounded by a wall made of stones so perfectly placed they needed no cement. Though the wall is set in the rises and dips of the land, the top is level. It has an entrance where a delicate, arched iron gate still is half-hinged, the latch frozen by rust.

"They were real artists," said Peggy Bunnell, who has lived near the cemetery since 1944. "At one time, this was a very handsome cemetery."

Now it is a mess.

Tombstones for Dibbles named Sarah, Eliza, Jonathan and George lean 45 degrees, most of the writing worn away or crusted with olive-green moss. Thick, dead vines hang from the trees like a curtain, fallen tree limbs crisscross the graves and weeds creep up the chipped faces of the tombstones.

But what scares Bunnell is a wooden stick planted in the middle of the cemetery with the words "survey control No. 122" written in red.

"They took down about 40 trees; only three or four are left," Bunnell said on a recent morning, pointing to the field beside the cemetery as a backhoe operator removed stumps and roots. "They're planning to build a home here. But I'd like to know what will happen to the cemetery."

It's a fair question. In Stamford , burial grounds so old they no longer have owners are not protected. The city does not maintain them.

According to Connecticut law, municipalities may clean up abandoned cemeteries but are not obligated. Though a statute prohibits the destruction of ancient burial places, no state agency oversees them.

"Our role in protecting a cemetery wouldn't come into play unless it was listed on the national register or it's a state archaeological site, and in Stamford , only Woodland Cemetery is listed," said Bill Kraus of Norwalk , a member of the State Preservation Council. "It's possible these cemeteries could be worthy of being listed, but they would have to go through a verification and qualification process, which takes quite a bit of research."

It's different in New York.

"Any cemetery in the state of New York that is abandoned becomes the responsibility of the community or township where it is abandoned," said Watson, the North Castle historian who also is secretary and treasurer of an ancient cemetery there. "That is New York state law. I never heard of a comparable law in Connecticut."

In Connecticut , preservation of old cemeteries is left mostly to citizens. That can create problems, said Renee Kahn, founder and director of the Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program in Stamford.

"The law says the land cannot be bought and sold by anybody, but these little cemeteries are everywhere," Kahn said. "A lot of them are hidden, and if a developer wanted to plow one under, no one would necessarily know."

Kahn learned, for example, that there was a slave cemetery on Guinea Road in North Stamford , where a ship captain once had a farm and captured people from New Guinea to work on it. When Kahn went to the site to check, the cemetery was gone.

Watson said she knows of an old burial ground in Stamford that was destroyed.

"Anybody who plows one over, you just hope that they are haunted," Kahn said.

Robert Bromley, a retired lawyer and member of the Historic Cemetery Preservation Society, a volunteer group that uses donations to maintain old burial grounds, said some have slipped between the cracks.

"I am aware of cemeteries being plowed under, but I don't know what to do about it," said Bromley, who was Stamford 's corporation counsel from 1971 to 1973. "As with black cemeteries, I'm waiting for the day when the Indians of Stamford start discovering the ancient Indian cemeteries that have been destroyed."

In Connecticut , it's up to residents to save them, Bromley said.

"If a neighbor speaks out, then there's a chance to prevent it," he said.

That's why Bunnell asked about the Dibble cemetery on East Middle Patent Road. But she doesn't have to worry, said Dr. Jeanne Marconi, who bought the 2-acre parcel next to the cemetery in November and is building a five-bedroom house on it.

"I love the cemetery. It will stay for another 300 years," said Marconi, a pediatrician in Norwalk and Darien. "We took tracing paper and tried to make out the names on some of the stones from the indentations, since the words are worn away. We found out who the last owner was and spent about two months calling Ohio and other places trying to track him down, but we never found him."

She would like to clean up the old burial site once she moves into her new home around Thanksgiving, Marconi said.

"I would like to pick up the gravestones, take out the weeds, but I'm not sure if I can legally do that," she said. "Can we do it if we are not the owners?"

The Historic Cemetery Preservation Society has been doing that for about eight years and has not had a problem, Bromley said.

"The heirs would probably be the first to give us accolades for cleaning them up. I don't see anybody who's going to object to that," he said.

Rosamond Vernon lives near another historic cemetery on Barnes Road off Long Ridge Road , where a development of 59 cluster homes is being built. The Oliver Lockwood cemetery, where prominent Stamford families were buried from 1849 to 1905, is wrapped in an orange plastic construction fence.

"My neighbors and I have been watching the development, and we're concerned about making sure the cemetery stays there," Vernon said. "It's sacred ground. It's the history of the city. It was part of farmland owned by people who lived there. That's where they put their family. They cared enough to put a stone wall around it. It was set aside for that purpose, and we should preserve it."

It will be preserved, said William Hennessey, lawyer for the developers, Piper's Three LLC.

"The construction fencing is to make it clear to the workers that that area is to be protected," Hennessey said. "The cemetery will not be disturbed. It is at the edge of the development."

People should preserve graves according to the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you, Vernon said.

"I always check up on my mother's and father's and husband's and son's graves. I know I'll be there, too," she said. "I hope someone will watch over mine."

Copyright © 2004 The Advocate. All Rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.

Oldest cemeteries need preservation help (May 10, 2004)
Lost stories: Historic cemetery showing ravages of time (August 23, 2005)
Stamford Cemeteries