Tombstone restoration reveals hidden history

To the Editor:

The repair and cleaning of 18th century tombstones will be discussed at the next meeting of the Milford Historical Society on Monday, March 16, at 7 p.m., at the Mary Taylor Memorial Church on the Green.

The speakers will be Ethan and Barbara Stewart who unintentionally are now experts on revitalizing a cemetery. And they will tell about several discoveries that surprised everyone. The society’s guests for the evening will be members of the Orange Historical Society.

The public also is invited; coffee and dessert will be available. The meeting is free, but donations are always appreciated.

Restoration of the cemetery all started when Ethan and Barbara became concerned about Stratford’s unkempt cemetery of the historic Christ Episcopal Church that dates back to 1723. It was overgrown with weeds and many tombstones were face-down. Fixing those things sounded fairly easy, so they recruited volunteers from the David Humphreys Branch #1 of the Sons of the American Revolution along with Milford’s Freelove Baldwin Stow Chapter and the Sarah Riggs Humphreys-Silliman Chapter (that includes Stratford) of the Daughters of the American Revolution. They worked together to restore the cemetery, once also known as the Episcopal Burying Place or Old Episcopal Burying Place.

Then came the hard part and three years later the work continues. So much had to be done. Some cracked stones looked like puzzle pieces that needed to be glued together. Then it was discovered that one gravestone had to be moved from one grave and reset on another. Apparently, in the past someone had put a fallen stone on the wrong grave. Fortunately, the church has extensive records that helped volunteers set everything right again. Also, they discovered that at the back of the graveyard local slaves had been buried with no markers. That added another chapter to the site’s history, and ongoing research may reveal which families had slaves and if there is a record of their names.

Volunteers fixed up the gravesite of William Samuel Johnson from Connecticut, one of the signers of the United States Constitution. Meanwhile, his father, Samuel Johnson, was the first president of King’s College, which in May of 1787 became known as Columbia University. Then in November of that year his son, William Samuel Johnson, became the first president of Columbia. After putting all this together, the Stewarts wrote a letter to Columbia and got a $10,000 donation to carry on the restoration of the burying ground. Apparently, the Johnson names still had some pull and high standing at the university!

The Project expanded. They photographed all 294 stones and recorded the inscriptions. Where wordings were not readable, they referred to the church records that, surprisingly, had the original wording from each stone. Now that information has been put on computer. It also came to light that the cemetery is the resting place of 20 Revolutionary War veterans, but no one remembered ever seeing flags on their graves. The SAR saw to it that flag holders and markers were installed.

The Stewarts’ work will help the Friends of the Milford Cemetery Association in their work of cleaning, repairing, and recording local tombstones in the Old Milford Cemetery. There’s a lot more to the story, and the Stewarts will present slides that illustrate the best ways to revitalize a cemetery. Ethan is the president of the David Humphreys Branch #1 of the SAR in New Haven. He is also past president of the Connecticut Society. Barbara is a member of Milford’s Freelove Baldwin Stow Chapter of the DAR. She is a past regent and is currently the acting regent. She is also chairperson for the Wreaths Across America ceremony held every December at Kings Highway Cemetery.

The SAR and DAR are nonprofit organizations with the objectives of perpetuating the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved American independence. The groups promote the development of an enlightened public, foster patriotic citizenship, and work to preserve historical landmarks.

Marilyn May

Milford Historical Society