Saving Southlawn: "More To It Than We Thought"By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Williamstown - "There was a lot more to it than we thought when we first started."
|Martin Johnson of the Monument Conservation Collaborative worked on a Southlawn cemetery gravestone on Aug. 14.|
The words were spoken by South Williamstown Community Association member Regina Rouse, who is also a member of the association's historical committee and a driving force behind an ongoing Southlawn cemetery restoration project.
Speaking during an Aug. 15 interview, Rouse offered details about the current work and plans for future restoration and preservation initiatives.
Restoration experts of the Monument Conservation Collaborative LLC are tackling restoration of over 100 gravestones at the Route 7 cemetery.
Getting Here From There
But getting from the restoration idea phase to a restoration project required over two years of dedicated effort and a genuine interest in preserving the history and family legacies of the community.
Headstones may be stabilized with devices such as this when work is being performed.
"About two or three years ago, we became concerned about the condition of the Southlawn cemetery," Rouse said. "Stones were coming down one after another. And we understood that the [town] cemetery department didn't have the money or the skills to repair these stones."
A contingent that included Rouse, John MacDonald, Ann Tiffany and Shirley Sylvester began trying to devise a solution to the problem. Rouse said that she researched the availability of grant funds for such a project and learned that cemetery preservation grant pickings were quite slim.
As she investigated possible funding options, Rouse also contacted the office of state Rep. Daniel Bosley. Bosley suggested that the group contact the Massachusetts Historical Commission. The state commission may provide grant funds to cemetery preservation of historic gravestones via a lengthy and detailed application process, Rouse said.
"I probably spent about 100 hours filling out the state applications," she said. "It's a complicated process; the town owns the cemetery, the South Williamstown Community Association is the legal entity that applied for the grants and the association historical committee actually initiated the work."
Money And Requirements
In addition to state funds, the group asked town voters at the 2004 May Town Meeting to approve an initial $35,000 Community Preservation Act grant for the project. Voters approved the funds and the following year, voters approved a $54,000 CPA grant for the undertaking. The state historical commission granted $40,000 to the project, Rouse said.
As part of the project requirements, a condition assessment at the cemetery was necessary, Rouse said. The assessment was funded via grant funds, as was the hiring of a project consultant, which was also part of the requirement for utilizing state money, Rouse said.
The work being done now must be completed by June 2007 and will not drain the project's funding abilities, she said.
"Any money left over will go toward a second phase," Rouse said. "We have stones that we couldn't do [as part of the current project]. We'd like to do the whole cemetery. We'd like to get the cemetery in decent shape and start an endowment fund."
There were times when progress seemed painfully slow, but the endeavor has been worth the effort, Rouse said.
Oldest Stone Marks Grave Of A Child
"This has been an adventure," she said. "There's been some pleasure. It's nice to see these stones being worked on."
Rouse said the stone believed to be the Southlawn cemetery oldest, that of a two-year-old child, has been repaired. Also included in the restoration work was the stone of the cemetery founder, Issac Stratton.
Much of the gravestone damage occurred as a result of weather and conditions such as earth shifts due to freeze-thaw cycles. The soil in the cemetery isn't well suited to very large monuments, Rouse said. Many stones stood up to the tests of time and weather quite well, she noted.
"Some of these stones go back to the 1770s, and if they are falling down now, that's pretty remarkable," she said.
Eastlawn Cemetery Gravestone Damage
Numerous gravestones erected at the oldest portion of the Eastlawn cemetery on Route 2 are in various stages of deterioration. Rouse said that she would be willing to offer advice and guidance to any group that might want to seek a restoration for those stones.
"It would be nice if some of the other cemeteries got some groups to back them," she said.
Damaged headstones at the Eastlawn cemetery, photographed on Aug. 14.
The town owns the Southlawn, Eastlawn and Westlawn cemeteries and the Selectmen act as cemetery commissioners; Williams College owns its' own burial ground. House of Local History members are working to establish a database of all those buried in the town cemeteries, including several small cemeteries that are no longer used, Rouse said.
And while the process of acquiring cemetery restoration funds can be tedious and may at times border on frustrating, preserving family and community history is a worthy pursuit.
"Not to mention respecting the dead," Rouse said. "It was a lot more [work] than I anticipated. But once you jump into it, it seems too much to jump out. And I'd be willing to share what we've learned. That would probably cut the time down considerably."
Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 802-823-9367.