Buried History

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:52

    SUSSEX COUNTY-Pieces of history lie scattered all over Sussex County. Old cemeteries n ranging from hundreds of graves organized and plotted centuries ago, to a handful of headstones lying forgotten in woods and farm fields n hold valuable information about the county's early inhabitants. The Sussex County Historical Society is seeing to it that those pieces of history stay accessible. The society has taken responsibility for 31 abandoned, historic graveyards throughout the county, cleaning them up, maintaining the grounds and in some cases unearthing long forgotten names and dates. "These are a footnote in our county's history," said Bob Longcore, president of the Sussex County Historical Society. As a member of the National Association for Graveside Studies, Longcore has a personal interest in graveyards and the light they can shed on life long ago. The Old Newton Burial Ground, just off Main Street in Newton, was grown over with weeds and brush before the historical society did its cleanup. Some gravestones had fallen over and their markings were becoming illegible, others had broken or sunk into the ground. For the past 10 years, the society has enlisted the help of the Sussex County Sheriff's Department in its cleanup and maintenance of the cemeteries. Prisoners in two of the sheriff's work programs clear out brush and debris, mow and weed the grounds in work that does wonders to preserve the cemeteries, Longcore said. "It's amazing what that number of people can do in a day," he said. Sheriff Robert Untig said the cemetery work done by the prisoners is valuable both to the county and to the workers. "It's important work. It's our history," Untig said. "It shows respect for those people who have gone before us." Untig said that in addition to clean-up and landscaping work, the prisoners learn how to reset the stones and do some minor restoration work, something that has sparked the interest of several prisoners who have taken up an interest in genealogy after being released. "Yes, it's punitive, but you want them to benefit in some way from the work, too," Untig said. Prisoners from the Sheriff's Work Assistance Program work in groups of between three and six in the cemeteries as needed, Untig explained. Those in the "SWAP" program are from the general county jail population who have been chosen to work because they are deemed minimum security risks. Cemetery work is also done by those in the Sheriff's Labor Assistance Program, or "SLAP," which is for people sentenced to work weekends in lieu of spending days and overnights in jail. Untig said that program is similar to "structured community service." Both of the sheriff's programs make available free labor to non-profit projects. Longcore said the historical society only takes over cemeteries that are "abandoned and orphaned" and which are not being cared for by a church or other owner. He said historical society members are currently researching ownership and right-of-way access to several small cemeteries that have been abandoned. The research sometimes has to go as far back as before the Civil War. In some cemeteries, historical society volunteers are unearthing buried stones, uprighting fallen stones and beginning the tedious process of reading and recording inscriptions. Stones that have fallen can lose its engraved markings when they become filled with rainwater and endure yearly freezing and thawing, Longcore said. Historians use several methods to better read fading inscriptions n using water, the angles of the sunlight, mirrors and "dusting" the surface. "We want to see them resemble what they originally did, as closely as possible," Longcore said. Over the years, volunteers have recorded names and dates of graves in cemeteries like the Old Newton Burial Ground, which was the sole cemetery in Newton for many years and is the final resting place of many of the county's early settlers. The hundreds of graves there were used at one point as the basis for general statistics on mortality rates in the 1800s. According to an article in "Fragments: A Journal of the Sussex County Historical Society" published in 1986, the cemetery was used to compute average life expectancy to be 37 for males and 43 for females, with a high infant mortality. Some headstones provide more information than simply names and dates, Longcore said. Long descriptions of the deceased's accomplishments in life are etched in some stones, according to Longcore. Some describe the emotional state of those left behind. In the Old Newton Burial Ground, side-by-side gravestones of sisters, age 10 and 12, who died in 1799 just six days apart, both hold the sentiment: "Here lies the grief of a fond mother and the blasted expectations of an indulgent father." "Life was rough back then," Longcore said. Poor families couldn't afford to have stones engraved, so they marked family members' graves with plain fieldstones set into the ground, Longcore said. One headstone is engraved on both sides, serving as a double grave marker. Longcore said with 31 cemeteries to care for, the historical society's volunteers and sheriff's workers can only do a minimum of maintenance once the initial clean-up is done. "We can only go back so often," he said. "There's so much work to be done yet."