HISTORY OF ANCIENT BURYING GROUND AND VILLAGE CEMETERY
|DATE||BURYING GROUND HISTORY|
|1638-1638||Burying Ground was established by Town of Wethersfield. No burial lots were sold, burials were permitted wherever there was a vacancy.|
|1684||Nathaniel Bowman lost land to burying ground in land dispute. Burying ground expanded to 115.5 feet wide by 391.87 feet long.|
|1722||First Society began governing the burying ground instead of the Town.|
|1727||First Ecclesiastical Society was formed, which eliminated the First Society’s jurisdiction over church matters.|
|1736||Nathaniel Burnham sold land to First Society for burying ground.|
|1760||First Society purchased from James Mitchell a quarter acre of property for 66 pounds.|
|1797||On December 20 First School Society replaced First Society upon the sale of the Western Reserve in Ohio.|
|1821||Burying ground placed under control of the First School Society by State of Connecticut.|
|1853||First School Society obtained one acre, 1 rood, and 21 rods of land from Alexander, William, and Charles Clapp for $359. This was the first time family plots could be purchased.|
|1856||State of Connecticut General Assembly abolished all school societies. First School Society ceased to exist.|
|1862||Special Act of the State of Connecticut General Assembly restored the First School Society in Wethersfield. Only the Old Academy building at 150 Main Street and burying ground were under authority of reinstated First School Society.|
|1881||Russell Adams sold 2 acres of Reverend John Marsh’s property for use as burying ground for $4500.|
|1894||First School Society withdrew all control of education system. The First School Society confined its activities to the Burying Ground and maintenance of the Old Academy Building.|
|1922||The First Ecclesiastical Society sold the rear portion of Eliza H. Griswold’s old property (Peter Burnham House) to the First School Society to be used as extension to burying ground.|
|1922||On November 12, the Village Cemetery Association was formed under the umbrella organization of the First School Society to care for the burying ground.|
|1950||Vincent and Elizabeth Thronberg moved the Griswold House (Peter Burnham House) from 11 Marsh Street across to 36 Marsh Street.|
|1952||John and Josephine Olson sold 3 1/2 acres behind their home at 105 Marsh Street, to be used as the burying ground for $2,000.|
|1953||First School Society purchased 1.84 acres at 260 Main Street, from James T. Pratt for $2,000.|
|1956||Arthur Officer sold 6 acres of property behind his home at 276 Main Street, to the First School Society for $2,513.75.|
|1957||Alice and Robert Dowling sold 1/3 acre behind their house at 282 Main Street for $250 to the First School Society to be used as the burying ground.|
|1961||First School Society sold 3.4 acres of Officer’s original 6 acres to the State of Connecticut for the on-ramps and exit-ramps for Interstate Highway I-91 for $5,400.|
|1973||The First Church of Christ constructed Dunham glass connectors between their buildings and the first row of gravestones had to be turned in the opposite direction to be viewable.|
|1985||The Town sold 2.11 acres of the old Olson farm, 105 Marsh Street, to the First School Society for $1.|
|1985||First School Society purchased two parcels of land from the Town that previously belonged to John I. and Millicent Stevens for a combined price of $1.|
|2000||Trinity Episcopal Church sold .11 acres that previously belonged to the Dowlings to the First School Society for $3,000.|
|2004||First School Society bought .41 acres from Trinity Episcopal Church that once belonged to the Stevens for $10,000.|
(Click on map for larger version.)
The Burying Ground Land Use Map above is an approximation of parcels acquired for the Ancient Burying Ground and Village Cemetery. The parcels are labeled with date they were acquired and from who. This is not an exact map of the boundaries. Parcel boundaries have been estimated from land deeds, letters describing transactions, minutes and secondary sources.
Wethersfield Historical Society, in partnership with the First School Society and Central Connecticut State University graduate student Allison Golomb, present a scholarly study on the land use of the local Ancient and Village Burying Ground. This expository essay explores the original Native American inhabitants of the area now known as Wethersfield, European settlement of the area, establishment of the burying ground and historical context of extensions from 1684 to 2004. Recorded below in chronological order to illustrate change in authority, type of use, boundaries and challenges is four hundred years of history of one parcel of land.
Lake Hitchcock was formed about 15,000 years ago when the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted during the Wisconsinian glaciation. The debris collected during the glacier’s movement settled at the outer edges of the glacier. When the glacier stopped moving for decades or centuries, the debris that collected formed ridges called moraines. One of these ridges is located in present-day Rocky Hill, Connecticut. The moraines trapped water from the melting glacier that formed Glacial Lake Hitchcock. The lake covered the present area of the Connecticut River Valley including the town of Wethersfield. As the glacier melted, all the silt and clay that the glacier acquired when it moved accumulated at the bottom of the lake. When “Lake Hitchcock drained between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago,” the sediment at the bottom remained. The hill in Wethersfield’s Ancient Burying Ground formed from a large amount of silt and clay that collected and was deposited when the glacier melted.
Wongunks in Pyquaug
After the climate began to warm about 10,000 years ago, Native Americans moved into the New England area. Over the centuries, the Native Americans transformed from hunter-gatherers into agriculturists with tools and permanent villages. These people were a part of the vast group of Native Americans who spoke the Algonquian language. Although the dialects differed from tribe to tribe, the language was common from South Carolina into Canada, and from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. Every Algonquian tribe tried to situate itself in areas near water for food and easy transportation as well as near hills or mountains that were used as lookout posts; meadows to grow crops; and forests that would block the wind. New England Eastern Woodland Native Americans ate fish they caught and they grew crops. They hunted wild game, and gathered fruits, berries and roots as well.
Pyquaug (Wethersfield) offered all of these environmental aspects and was a favorable place for the Wongunks, a tribe of Eastern Woodland Native Americans, to inhabit. These Native Americans came to Wethersfield, which they named Pyquaug, in the late twelfth century. The Wongunks cultivated the fertile soil in the meadows along the Connecticut River, used the River for transportation and a food source and hunted the local animals. In the early seventeenth century, a smallpox epidemic occurred in New England that killed about seventy-five percent of all Native Americans. A few years later the Pequots, a neighboring tribe, warred with the decimated Wongunks for control of the Connecticut River and the European furtrade. The sachem’s (tribal leader) sons traveled to the English settlement of Watertown, Massachusetts and invited colonists to move to Pyquaug for miles of fertile land in exchange for protecting the Wongunks. In 1634, the first ten settlers relocated to Pyquaug, and, in just, one year, many more colonists moved to the area. The colonists influenced the Wongunks environment rapidly. Settlers purchased the meadows for agriculture, hunted and killed animals for food and pelts on a mass scale and stripped forests for firewood. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, most Wongunks had joined other tribes or relocated to a reservation in Middletown. The Wongunks were extinct by 1785, as the colonists thrived in Wethersfield.
In this relatively flat land of Wethersfield, where the first settlers and the Wongunks resided, is a hill. Past Wethersfield residents and historians had many different notions as to the purpose of the hill prior to European settlement. Sherman W. Adams, a local late-nineteenth century historian, speculated that the hill was a place to retreat to during floods, as the mound was the highest elevation adjacent to the Connecticut River. Adams explained that a great flood occurred and the Wongunks had to live on the hill for several days without food and clean water, therefore it was named “Hungry Hill.” Additionally, Adams stated that the mound was possibly a burial location for the Wongunks. John C. Willard, a twentieth century town historian, reported, “in 1823 Peleg Coleman discovered the skull of an Indian” on the hill. He also insisted in the same paper that, while laying a road through the burying ground, someone found a thighbone and a possibly different indigenous skull. In another essay, “Old Village Cemetery,” an anonymous author declared that a skeleton of a Native American was found in a grave in the seated position facing east, “with his implements of war.” The essay and letter may be discussing the same remains, but that is unclear. Bruce Greene, the site manager for the State Archeologist in Connecticut, contradicts the articles and insists that Native Americans formed burial mounds by layering individuals and dirt, and it is unlikely that they would use a naturally formed hill for burial purposes. Presently, there are no archaeological records of Native Americans buried on the hill of the Ancient Burying Ground. Concrete proof that Native Americans buried their dead on that hill does not exist.
Puritans Immigrate from England and Settle in America
The group of people who emigrated from England to New England was a religious sect called the Reformed, referred to as Puritans in a pejorative manner. Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England because they thought the monarchy had corrupted the church. In late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England, the monarchy controlled the Church of England and most Puritans believed that church and state should be separated. Puritan belief insisted that the Church of England encouraged superstitions and questionable practices that were not justified in the Bible. Strict literal interpretation of the Bible governed the puritanical practice. The Church of England deemed Puritan leaders heretics and therefore persecuted, jailed and harassed them until they left the country. Many English Puritans came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England in the 1620s and early 1630s during the Great Migration.
The Puritan church in Massachusetts only allowed those that had a “born again” experience, a practice controlled by the clergy, to be members of their church, and only church members had full civil rights. The church’s congregations governed the town matters. The Puritans who came to Wethersfield from Massachusetts were Congregationalists. The congregation made decisions concerning all aspects of the church, including hiring and firing of ministers. Congregations in Connecticut also believed in separation of church and state so they did not make religious laws pertaining to societal and town matters.
When the Colonists settled Wethersfield in 1634, certain necessities were required for them to succeed on their own in a new territory: shelters, food sources, a fort, and a burial ground. The Town designated certain areas for homesteads, farmlands, a meetinghouse, common lands, and burying grounds. In one of the common lands was the hill that rose from the surrounding flat land and which, today, is a part of the burying ground. According to town historian Sherman W. Adams, the exact location of the common land or Green chosen for the burying ground abutted “westerly upon a large square [a green]… easterly upon the Great Meadow, and included little more than the crown of the hill… and its eastern slope.” In New England, some farmers kept pastures and orchards on the town green. As the burying ground grew in Wethersfield, it encompassed farmlands. There is a lack of knowledge about when the Green began functioning as a burying ground, but the burying ground definitely existed by 1638 as Henry Smith’s land bordered it on the north side. Consequently, the colonists must have established the burying ground shortly after they settled Wethersfield.
The settlement of Wethersfield differs from other early Connecticut towns in the fact that the colonists established it without religious consent from their mother church in Watertown. If Puritans wanted to form a daughter church, they needed permission from the congregation of the mother church. John Oldham and the first settlers did not receive permission from the Watertown Church to establish the new settlement in Pyquaug. Due to these religious impediments, a church was not established when the Town was first settled. To further complicate the issue, there was an excess of ministers struggling for religious power until 1641 when Reverend Henry Smith was established as the first settled minister. Neither the congregation nor the ministers of the Meetinghouse maintained the burying ground. Instead, the Town outlined the section of the common land designated for burials and facilitated its care.
As with most seventeenth century New England towns, there was an inability to entirely separate town and religious matters. The Town of Wethersfield maintained the burying ground, but a select group of men who controlled expenditures for the Town also abided by the advice of the clergy. Since the minister was an integral part of the social as well as religious fabric of the Town, the church exerted considerable influence over burying ground matters, but never held direct power, which was always a civil function.
Lack of Early Gravestones
Missing church records and no surviving gravestones prior to 1670 means that historians cannot confirm when the earliest burial in the Ancient Burying Ground occurred. There are a few possible reasons as to why the first stones may not have survived, such as some of the markers were made of wood or a soft stone that deteriorated over the centuries. The weather may have destroyed markers that were “carved by a member of the family or a friend rather than by a skilled artisan,” and the engravings could have faded or faces broken apart. Some of the stones were large rocks with only the initials of the deceased on them and/or were misplaced throughout the years as well. According to Willard, stones suitable to carve for headstones were not available in the early years of the settlement in Wethersfield. The Town also did not have a resident gravestone carver until Ashbel Savage settled in Wethersfield in the 1790s. Prior to Savage, the residents of Wethersfield obtained stones from the nearby towns of Windsor and Middletown.
An additional reason why grave markers did not remain was that the early settlers held strict Puritanical beliefs not to practice funerary rites. Predestination dispelled the need for funerary rites with the Almighty’s decision of the soul as saved or damned prior to birth. According to David E. Stannard, American Studies professor at the University of Hawaii, Puritans believed that “if there was no spiritual justification for a ritual its practice was not merely to be ignored – it was to be fiercely stripped away.” Therefore, Puritans did not have funeral services with prayers or hymns and did not value grave markers. Gradually Puritans altered their practices and they began marking their graves with lasting memorials. One such stone is a memorial stone crafted in the 1670s or 1680s in remembrance of Leonard Chester who died in 1648. His stone is one of the only stones that remain from the seventeenth century.
Leonard Chester was one of the “Ten Adventurers” who settled Wethersfield when the Native Americans inhabited the area. He and a few other men were also proprietors, as they originally purchased parcels of land from the Wongunks and resold it to newly arrived colonists. Wethersfield is unique from other Connecticut towns because the proprietors were essentially the same individuals who were members of the Town government and the church. Thus, both the Town and church influenced the land.
The Town and First Society Form the Ancient Burying Ground
The first extension to the burying ground was in 1684 when the Town obtained land adjacent to the burying ground from Nathaniel Bowman through a land dispute. Bowman’s property was the subject of a boundary dispute, so he did not sell it to the Town, but relinquished it to them. With his land, the burying ground expanded to 115.5 feet wide and 391.87 feet long. The dispute was resolved at the Meetinghouse, in a public forum, where matters were settled by a democratic consensus of a vote of Freemen, the only men allowed to vote.
Between the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the first quarter of the eighteenth century, economic changes in Wethersfield altered the town forever. Wethersfield prospered as residents built ships, exported local goods to the West Indies and led the area in agricultural production. As Wethersfield grew in the eighteenth century, residents managed the expanding Town responsibilities through committees and organizations. In 1722, the governance of education, ecclesiastical and civic affairs in Wethersfield fell to the newly-formed Town organization, the First Society. This occurred because Nyaug and Stepney parishes of Wethersfield became their own independently governed towns, Glastonbury and Rocky Hill, respectively. The church, schools, and burying ground in Wethersfield were under the authority of the First Society. Glastonbury was the second society, and Rocky Hill was the third. With parishes, individually governing sections of town, seceding, this new First Society restricted voting on town issues to only citizens currently residing within the town of Wethersfield boundaries.
Only five years later, in 1727, the First Society split its governing responsibilities with the newly formed First Ecclesiastical Society, the governing body of the church congregation. The governing body was comprised of church members eligible to vote on church matters. The First Ecclesiastical Society presided over local church affairs, while the First Society maintained the burying ground and schools. Other parishes began their own societies and ecclesiastical societies that governed their parish and church affairs. It was not until 1733 that Wethersfield’s First Ecclesiastical Society supposedly began governing the burying ground, instead of the First Society. According to Adams, land sales were deeded to the First Ecclesiastical Society from 1733 to 1821. However, the deeds from that time period show that the First Society still owned and controlled the burying ground.
The First Society bought a parcel of property on March 12, 1736 from Nathaniel Burnham, adding the second extension to the burying ground. Burnham’s property and homestead were located on Marsh Street and stretched to the open space between the burying ground at the top of the hill and Main Street. Reverend Henry Smith, the first settled minister of the First Church of Christ from 1641 to 1648, originally owned Burnham’s property. Burnham sold the First Society a section of his land on the west side of the burying ground that stretched towards Main Street. That section bordered the burying ground on its east side and it was on the western slope of Hungry Hill. The First Society purchased this parcel for future use as burial plots as the town’s population had greatly expanded from one hundred years prior.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Green was shrinking, and mercantilism was growing in Wethersfield. Many Wethersfield merchants, like James Mitchell, became wealthy by shipping products such as the Wethersfield Red Onion, cattle, pork, and pipe staves to the West Indies and other parts of the world. The First Society acquired James Mitchell’s property on February 28, 1760 for sixty-six pounds. This extension expanded the burying ground property about a quarter acre to the west, which enlarged the boundaries to the present day meetinghouse. Roads bounded the North, South, and West side of Mitchell’s land. These four extensions and the original tract of land listed above completed the current bounds of the Ancient Burying Ground in 1760. Mitchell’s land addition was the last extension that the First Society would make to the Ancient Burying Ground.
First School Society Creates Village Burying Ground
On December 30, 1797, the First Society automatically became the First School Society, after the sale of the Western Reserve in the present state of Ohio. King Charles II of England granted the land in Ohio to Connecticut Colony through a charter in 1662. The state of Connecticut later laid claim to the Western Reserve when all the states were claiming western territory. Its location was in the northeast corner of today’s Ohio that bordered Pennsylvania and Lake Erie. Connecticut sold the land to create a perpetual school fund. The First Society used the profit from the sale for schools and the committee became the First School Society. Later in 1821, the Connecticut State Legislature passed “An Act for Regulation of School Societies and for the Support of Schools,” thus granting the Society control of the burying ground. Under Title 84, Schools, Chapter 1, Section 19, this specific legislation gave school societies jurisdiction over burying grounds. Connecticut State Statutes of Legislation in 1821stated that “School societies shall have power to provide a hearse and pall, for the burial of the dead, and to procure and hold lands for burying-grounds, and to make regulations to fence the same, and to preserve the monuments erected therein, and to lay and collect as other taxes and [sic] collected.” The State Legislation mandated it was the responsibility of the First School Society to buy land for future use as a burying ground and that the society must maintain the property. Not only in Wethersfield were First School Societies taking control of burying grounds, but all across Connecticut.
The minutes of the First School Society are not clear as to when the Society actually began participating with functions pertaining to the burying ground. According to the minute book from 1797 to 1954, the First School Society made their first recorded decision about the burying ground in 1837. In that year, members “voted to build a fence to enclose the Burying Ground,” to keep out all large animals and to repair the hearse. Between 1837 and 1849, the First School Society rarely discussed the burying ground.
The first time the First School Society mentioned a land sale pertaining to the cemetery was in 1850. In that year, the First School Society began to think about whom to approach for a land enlargement. On February 25, 1853, the First School Society bought one acre, one rood, and twenty-one rods of land from brothers Alexander and William Clapp of Windsor, and Charles Clapp of Bloomfield for $359.00. Roswell Clapp(1783-1852) was the only storekeeper in Wethersfield for many years on Main Street. After his death, his sons became executors of the Roswell Clapp estate. This new addition was the Clapp extension, and it was the first section located in the Village Cemetery, or the modern section of the cemetery.
The Clapp extension was also the first place where individuals could buy a family plot. Prior to 1853, the sexton buried people in the order they deceased. In some cases though, the sexton buried families near each other because he allowed room for the other family members. With the purchase of the Clapp section, residents of Wethersfield could pick a plot for a family burial plot. These family plots were popular and sold so well that the First School Society was soon contemplating where to buy supplementary land.
Twenty-eight years later, the First School Society purchased two acres for $4,500 from Russell Adams on July 22, 1881. Adams purchased the land from the children and grandchildren of the Reverend John Marsh. Marsh served as minister at the First Church for forty-seven years, from 1774 to 1821. The Reverend John Marsh and his family lived in a house on Marsh Street and their property extended to the edge of the cemetery. Marsh’s children and grandchildren shared ownership of the two acres known as the “Marsh Property” after Reverend Marsh’s death in 1821. The property then remained in the family for an additional forty years. Over those four decades, most of his family did not live in the area, and the home fell into disrepair from neglect. The First School Society eventually had the house torn down in 1914, and the land became the Marsh section of the cemetery. At least one piece of the historic house survived; a corner cupboard that now resides in the Silas Deane House at 211 Main Street.
Twentieth Century Extensions to the Village Burying Ground
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Wethersfield industrialized and became increasingly urban, much like the rest of New England. The Hartford & Wethersfield Horse Railway Company installed an electric trolley from Wethersfield to Hartford to make traveling more convenient and accessible for residents. Streets in Wethersfield had electric lights installed as well. Some residents remodeled their homes to various styles of Italianate, Second Empire, or Colonial Revival, as each came into fashion. As Wethersfield electrified, and kept up with modern architecture, the Town’s landscape changed in other ways.
Mrs. Eliza H. Griswold sold her one-acre property and home on April 15, 1911, to the First Church of Christ for their lifetime use. Eliza was the wife of Martin S. Griswold, who bought this property from the Riley family in 1869. Martin was a farmer and Eliza kept house. They raised a family and by 1910 Martin had passed away, only Eliza and one of her daughters, Ida, remained in the house. Eliza deeded her property to the First Ecclesiastical Society in 1911. The First Ecclesiastical Society paid Griswold $3,200 for her home and surrounding land. Griswold’s house, also referred to as the Peter Burnham House, was built in 1755, and stood at 11 Marsh Street, just east of the Meetinghouse. After Griswold vacated her home, the First Church used the house as an office, parish house, and parsonage. The First Ecclesiastical Society then deeded the property behind the parish house to the First School Society on December 18, 1922 for one dollar. The parcel was the easterly portion bordered to the east by the Marsh extension of the cemetery, north by the Ancient Burying Ground, south by Marsh Street and west by the parish house on First Church property.
In the 1940s, First Church and the First Ecclesiastical Society wanted to expand into the Griswold property to build the John Marsh Memorial, which is the present brick building southeast of the Meetinghouse. In order to preserve the historic house, the First Ecclesiastical Society voted and put it up for sale. Vincent E. and Elizabeth Thornburg purchased the house for $500 in 1950. The Thornburgs moved the house across the street to the present address of 36 Marsh Street to use as their antique shop. The John Marsh Memorial was then constructed by First Church for additional Sunday School classrooms and meeting spaces for various church committees.
As the First Church congregation grew, more buildings were built or occupied by First Church. In 1973, the church built the Dunham Connector, the glass hallway from the newly constructed Cadwell addition to the John Marsh Memorial. When the connector was complete, it was in close proximity to the first row of gravestones in the cemetery nearest to the church edifice. Traditionally in Wethersfield’s Ancient Burying Ground, the gravestones faced west in the direction of Main Street. John Willard, President of the First School Society was the driving force in turning the first row of stones around so the inscriptions were then facing east towards the rest of the cemetery and not the walls of the First Church. The stones are still at the same location, but face the opposite direction.
Agriculture Falls to Suburban Development
The First School Society formed the Village Cemetery Association as a working committee in 1922, to care for the burial ground, manage burial lots and maintain a clean, visitor-friendly cemetery property and “control of the Ancient Burial Place.” This organization revitalized the cemetery with careful maintenance, repair work and oversight for locals and possible genealogical tourists. The First School Society continued to manage all property transactions. Many townspeople speculated that the First School Society formed the Village Cemetery Association because the cemetery was in a state of disrepair at that time. While there is no written verification of this claim, the Village Cemetery Association has been diligent in keeping the cemetery a well-managed historic and active burial site.
Over the centuries, homes, roads, businesses and the burying ground overtook agriculture in Wethersfield. By the middle of the twentieth century, almost all farmlands became suburban developments. Farmers sold their lands to developers for various reasons: increases in property taxes, most of the farmers were elderly and lack of interest by their children in continuing to farm. Perhaps the hard life as a New England farmer was one of the reasons why John and Josephine Olson sold three and a half acres of farmland in 1952 to the First School Society. According to the First School Society of Wethersfield Annual Report of the Treasurer, the Society paid the Olsons $2,000 in exchange for a parcel of their land. The Olson property was “a 7 ½ acre farm, prior to the sale.” Johannus and Sarah Olson, John and Josephine’s parents, bought the farm from “Carrie E. Havens Perry on October 15, 1912.” Perry inherited it from her father, John Amidon, a local farmer and storekeeper. Perry resided in Mansfield, Connecticut when she sold her father’s land. The Olsons farmed the land, and a few outbuildings were on the property when purchased by the First School Society. Throughout the years, while digging graves, sextons occasionally uncovered bottles and other objects in this section.
A 1.84-acre section on the north side of the cemetery, owned by James T. Pratt, was the next parcel the First School Society bought, paying $2,000 on May 11, 1953. John Williams Esq. previously owned that land, as well as many other acres in the meadow, mowing lot and across Wethersfield, Newington and Stepney Parish. Williams obtained the Pratt property in 1817 and built his home in 1832. The land was a four and a half acre homestead with a large brick house on it and a few out buildings. In 1921, James T. Pratt was one of the charter members of the Village Cemetery Association. It is not known if the new extension was named for him because he was a part of the Village Cemetery Association or if it was because the land was his former property. First Church of Christ purchased the brick mansion that stood on the Pratt property in 1954. Pratt’s home became the new church parsonage, home of the minister, after Griswold’s home (Peter Burnham house) sold and moved across the street. Today, Pratt’s home, renamed the Morgan House, is a meeting space for First Church.
Arthur Officer, Pratt’s neighbor, then sold the six acres behind his house and his brother’s old store to the First School Society for $2,513.75 three years later on July 18, 1956. The Officers kept their home and the store building, which are now considered historic buildings on Main Street. The six acres that Officer sold was split in 1961, when the State of Connecticut assumed the property as part of eminent domain in exchange for $5,400. The First School Society sold the 3.5 acres closest to the Connecticut River to the State of Connecticut for the development of Interstate Highway I-91. Out of the sold land, the State constructed the on-ramps and exit-ramps that link Marsh Street to the interstate highway. The Connecticut Department of Transportation first proposed the highway in the 1940s as an interregional highway system connecting towns and states in a more direct route. It took the State about twenty years, between 1945 and 1966, to complete the highway all across Connecticut. One can see and hear the section of I-91 through Wethersfield from the cemetery and Old Wethersfield Historic District.
The Historic District encompasses 2.3 miles between the Connecticut River and the railroad track, and from the Rocky Hill border to Hartford. This area was the original town center. The district includes one hundred sixty nineteenth century homes, eighty-seven eighteenth century houses, three seventeenth century homes, and the burying ground. Robert and Alice Dowling sold the rear part of their property at 282 Main Street, located in the historic district, to the First School Society. On January 31, 1957, the land transaction was completed for $250 for a third of an acre, adding to the Harris section of the newest extension for one dollar. Robert Dowling purchased the property from the Harris – Robbins Estate in 1946. Like the Officers and Pratt, the Dowlings only sold the back of their land to the First School Society and not their home. The Dowling property was on the original home site of Andrew Ward’s homestead from the 1630s. Ward was one of the original colonists who came to Wethersfield in 1634. Throughout the centuries, Ward’s property has changed hands several times, until finally transferred from Dowling to the First School Society for use as the cemetery, where it will remain henceforth.
Bicentennial Expands Burying Ground
Twenty years later in 1976, the nation celebrated the Bicentennial in towns across the United States in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of America’s independence. Wethersfield held their event on July 4 and 5 of that year. To celebrate the event, Wethersfield had a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a picnic with games, a band and square dancing. A parade and fireworks took place to commemorate the holiday as well. To prepare for the Bicentennial, the Town acquired the Olson house on Marsh Street in 1974 and converted the home to a visitors’ center to use during the Bicentennial celebration.
After the Bicentennial celebration, the Town had no further use for the property and resold the house to a commercial buyer. The First School Society bought the two acres of land behind the house and parking lot for one dollar, as additional land for the burying ground. The land is, unfortunately, too marshy, as a brook runs through the middle of the newly acquired property. Also, the parcel lies in the flood plain of the Connecticut River, so nothing can be built there or no one can be buried.
In 1985, the First School Society acquired two more parcels of property from the Town of Wethersfield on June 27 for one dollar, as a border between the cemetery and the residential homes on Hart Street. John I. and Millicent Stevens had previously owned the two parcels that together nearly equaled an acre. Their property was located between the Charles C. Hart Seed Company and the Officer property, which was now part of the cemetery. The Town sold the Stevens property, a little more than an acre, to the First School Society. Similar to the Dowling’s sale, the Stevens’ house and barn behind it remain intact, as well as the other buildings on Hart Street and Main Street whose prior owners sold their back property to be used as the cemetery.
Trinity Episcopal Church sold the last two parcels of land that form the present day cemetery to the First School Society. The Congregation of Trinity Church constructed their worship hall in 1874. Over the next one hundred years, Trinity Church expanded into the surrounding area, building a new parish house and utilizing neighbors’ barns for storage. Once the new millennium began, Trinity Church had a multitude of land and nearby the First School Society was in need of extensions. The first parcel sold to the First School Society was .11 acres and it cost $3,000 on May 30, 2000. Alice W. Dowling was the property’s former owner until she sold her property to Trinity Episcopal Church in 1983. The Trinity Church property, the cemetery, and the First Church of Christ all bordered her small piece of land. Four years later on April 19, 2004, the First School Society bought the rear parcel of property on 290 Main Street from Trinity Church for $10,000. Part of the .41 acres was wetlands and the property is currently too marshy for use. This was the last extension made to the cemetery.
1930s aerial photograph of Wethersfield.
Transitions of the Burying Ground
Over the centuries, ownership of the burying ground in Wethersfield has changed, beginning with the Town and transitioning to the First School Society, an agent of the town and the Village Cemetery Association. After settling Wethersfield in 1634, the Town quickly designated the burying ground area to be on the Green. In 1722, the First Society formed and held jurisdiction over the burying ground, schools, and church. Wethersfield was the First Society, because it was the first town in comparison to its daughter towns. The First School Society governed the burying ground when the State of Connecticut mandated it to be so in 1821. Almost a century later, the Village Cemetery Association cared for the burying ground, but the First School Society processed the land transactions. Since 1922, the First School Society and the Village Cemetery Association have worked together to keep the burying ground a pleasant and respectful place for the deceased and for visitors.
Although the cemetery has grown from a small burying yard on top of a hill to a large cemetery in the last three hundred seventy eight years, it has almost reached its limit. One of the most difficult challenges is the diminishing space for burial plots. The First School Society has purchased almost all of the available land surrounding the current location. The cemetery is surrounded on all sides by the Connecticut River floodplain, streets, historic houses and buildings on private property and a state highway. Without support for state legislation to fill wetland areas on the floodplain behind the easement line in the acquired Olson and Trinity Church properties, this will no longer be an active cemetery in the near future.
Today, the Ancient and Village Burying Grounds are considered historic landmarks essential to Wethersfield’s identity, but the First School Society faces many challenges of funding and spatial restrictions that hinder further progress. To lend your support in repairing and preserving historic stones, please contact the Village Cemetery Association. A dedicated local group, Friends of the Ancient Cemetery and Endangered Stones (FACES) under the supervision of the Village Cemetery Association, cares for damaged stones in the burying ground, but they cannot keep up with the ever-growing challenge without further support.
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