By Gianna Volpe; photo by Michael Heller
Community volunteers learned about restoring historic burying sites this weekend at the area’s oldest graveyard – the Old Southampton Cemetery – during workshops led by preservation expert Joel Snodgrass.
Funded by the historic division of the Southampton Town Clerk’s Office, Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer said the weekend was invaluable to ensuring her records are as comprehensive as they can be.
“That’s exactly what these stones are,” Ms. Schermeyer said at Friday’s workshop. “They’re records, so it’s great that people are doing their part to help see that things like this are being preserved.”
Mr. Snodgrass, who received his Master’s Degree from Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, said preventing such sites from falling into ruin is gaining importance among those working in historic communities.
“We take for granted that historic, colonial burying sites sometimes contain the only record that remains of the existence of a person,” he said. “There’s no written records, there’s no church records, there’s no burial records – there’s no records; no nothing – so they’ve become very, very important from a genealogical and town record standpoint.”
Southampton Town historian Zachary Studenroth, who spent time Friday afternoon gently scraping sea foam green lichens from the nooks and crannies of the centuries-old tablets, said he’d witnessed this potential loss of history firsthand. ?“Years ago I was contacted by someone who said they’d moved to town and found a headstone in their carport and, not knowing where it belonged, had erected it in the woods behind their house,” said Mr. Studenroth. “Modern surveys showed no record of the stone, which belonged to a child we called ‘Little Danny,’ though it was included in an earlier cemetery survey done in the 1930s…It was very creepy because the stone was about the size and weight of a child, so it really was like we were carrying ‘Little Danny’ out of the woods to be reunited with his parents.”
Stories like that of ‘Little Danny’ is exactly what made the workshop significant for volunteers like Karen Kiaer.
“It’s less about the stone preservation, although that’s important; it’s about the stories of the people under the stones,” said Ms. Kiaer, cemetery preservation project chairperson for the Shelter Island chapter of the Daughters of Revolution. “Stone by stone – as you’re digging up monuments to reset them –– you’re also uncovering the monument of a person, and in Southampton, Southold and Shelter Island, you’re going back to the 1600s, to patriots, to the American Revolution.”
Southampton Town Videographer Charlie Styler took footage at this weekend’s workshop for a special he said will soon air on the Southampton Town Area Educational and Governmental Cable Channel 22.
Those interested in learning ways to bring sites like The Old Cemetery back to life can watch Mr. Styler’s footage to better understand preservation techniques like probing and pinning.
The first technique requires the use of thin, metal poles to “probe” the cemetery dirt for the buried bottom of a broken head or footstone, which Mr. Snodgrass said generically represents one-third the length of the entire stone.
Workshop volunteers like Bill Single and Chris Robinson used probing to find the bases of both head and footstones lying in the grass of The Old Southampton Cemetery grass, helping Mr. Snodgrass in “pinning” the broken pieces together after an epoxy was applied.
Mr. Snodgrass said extreme care should be taken when executing these techniques, as the historic objects are extremely delicate.
“You wouldn’t just pull it up because sometimes even suction on the back case of the fragile stone can cause damage,” he said of the need to excavate in order to make a match. “An inscription of a name – or typically initials – is usually an indication that they belong to each other.”
Maintenance to those stones still standing was also done this weekend, including the application of a microbial wash to remove lichens and other biological growth from the surfaces of porous marble and brownstone tablets.
“The porous stones, particularly ones with a granular quality to them, suffer from lichen growth,” Mr. Snodgrass said, adding gravestones offer the perfect environment for such clinging plants.
“[Gravestones] act as a perfect substrate,” he added. “They’ve got sort of a rough surface that can retain moisture and allows them to cling on easily, but more so, if you get normal rain the ground is damp, [gravestones] act as wicks, so the moisture will come up through the stone and evaporate out the surface of the stone.”
To mitigate biological growth at Old Southampton Cemetery, workshop volunteers used small pump sprayers to apply a non-toxic product called d2, which is used on the White House.
“It’s not meant to be put on and then it’s squeaky clean in 15 minutes,” Mr. Snodgrass said of the non-toxic liquid. “It’s designed to work over a period of time, so a month later you’ll see a change, even six months later. We treated the right one of two stones side by side – a husband and wife in a historic burying ground on the north shore – with d2 and the one on the right is entirely white now.”