Gravestones are propped up at the Old Northfield Cemetery in Stamford. To help improve conditions there, a judge sends some offenders to do community service work at the cemetery.
Andrew Sullivan / Staff Photo
Copyright © 2005, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.
The following is a story discussing old cemeteries, courtesy The Advocate
August 23, 2005
Lost stories: Historic cemetery showing ravages of time
By Doug Dalena
Advocate Staff Writer
STAMFORD -- Davenport, Hoyt, Scofield, Franklin, Webb, Selleck, Bell. If a street or neighborhood bears an old family name, chances are its namesake lies here.
Yet Old North Field, one of Stamford's oldest cemeteries, does not have the appearance of a shrine to city history. Instead, it appears to be an illustration that time and nature erode all things man-made.
Rungs on the wrought iron gate at its west end along Franklin Street are rusting away. Weeds and brush completely obscure some headstones near the cemetery walls, as if hiding secrets whose keepers went to dust centuries ago.
The tombstone of Abraham Davenport, the state legislator who willed an acre of his northern fields to the First Congregational Church for a burial ground in 1789, is marred by graffiti. It is one of many in the cemetery at Franklin and North streets where time has worn the inscription away.
A massive oak tree has grown up around a nearby headstone, so that the stone appears to be growing out of its trunk. The partially visible inscription reads, "In this earth -ests the body of -atherine T. . . . Third Child . . ."
In addition to Davenport, a confidant of Gov. John Trumbull, the cemetery is the final resting place of two dozens veterans of the American Revolution, as well as early settlers and ministers of First Church, whose fathers are credited with founding the city after moving from Wethersfield in 1641, said the Rev. Gary Brown, current senior pastor.
Some of the oldest graves were moved here from the original common burying ground, under what is now Columbus Park, in order to make way for Main Street, said local historian Robert Bromley, Davenport's biographer.
Despite the litter and decay there now, the cemetery is in much better shape than in decades past.
The authors of "Poems on Stone," Jeanne Majdalany and Jean Mulkerin, called its condition "very poor" in 1980. A 1993 poem by J. Barrett Wolf called "The Old North Field" refers to broken bottles of Night Train, abandoned shopping carts and sun-bleached American flags hanging from a fence.
"At one point, it was just a hayfield," said Brian Peddie, who along with his wife, Dawn, was walking his dog there on a recent afternoon.
The Avalon Corners residents said the cemetery looks much better now than it did a year-and-a-half ago, when they started coming here to exercise their English cocker spaniel, Belle.
The improvements came partly because the church has recently received donations meant specifically to maintain the cemetery, Brown said.
In addition to having the lawn mowed regularly and paying arborists to prune trees and remove dead ones, the church is looking into righting and restoring some headstones, but the cost of restoration means only a few can be done every year.
"We received money a while ago that was meant to match what the church puts in every year to maintain the cemetery," Brown said. "We have, each year, about $3,000; we actually put quite a bit more than that into the cemetery last year."
Last year, Superior Court Judge James Bingham added local cemeteries to a list of community service projects performed by young offenders sentenced in the Hoyt Street Courthouse. The Old North Field was one of the first to receive the project's attention.
In addition some area civic groups have volunteered their time to work in the cemetery, Brown said. Local Girl Scouts have placed flags at veterans' headstones before Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
Part of the reason the cemetery fell into disrepair, Brown said, was that individual families bought burial plots from the church. With most of the graves dating from before the 20th century, and the last burial sometime in the 1960s, most of the people buried there have no close living relatives.
"If the church had the foresight years ago, they should have put that money into a fund to maintain the cemetery," he said.
One piece of unexplained local history is carved into the headstone of Elizabeth Nichols, born in 1752 and died in 1818: "She saved Stamford from being burned by the British - 1779."
Several local historians, including Bromley, have been unable to find any reference to what Nichols might have done to save Stamford from burning when during a British assault on the coast in 1779, Norwalk and Bedford, N.Y. were not spared.
"As far as I know, there isn't one," Linda DeMott of the Historic Cemeteries Preservation Society said of Elizabeth Nichols' story.
Susan Prior-Crofoot and her husband, Doug, avid local historians and cemetery preservationists, reached out to everyone they knew who had an interest in old Stamford cemeteries or local history.
"So far, everybody we have spoken to has no idea who she is," she said.
That may be common for many under the Old North Field.
"Some of the nicest tombstones in the cemetery are buried under the brush, which kind of makes you sad in some ways," Brian Peddie said, reflecting on the many lost stories in the Old North Field. "How long 'til I'm forgotten?"
Copyright © 2005, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights reserved.
Oldest cemeteries need preservation help
Reprinted with permission.
(May 10, 2004)
Development threatens ancient cemeteries
(June 1, 2004)