Old First Church trustee volunteers to clean up cemetery

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OLD BENNINGTON — Over time, gravestones lose their original appearance due to natural erosion. At the Old First Church, one individual is looking to reverse the cemetery's aging appearance.

Last summer, Old First Church trustee member Charles Dewey realized the headstones needed to be cleaned after he couldn't read the inscriptions anymore. He also generated more historical signs for various stones and leading up to the cemetery. By power washing and hand cleaning, the first set of stones at the front of the cemetery are back to their original cream or white color while the ones in the back remain black. Dewey's goal is to clean every stone, as long as the structure isn't too fragile.

To date, the trustee has spent thousands of dollars of his own money reviving the cemetery, but he said he doesn't mind. Additionally, Jerome Construction Inc. has helped remove and maintain vegetation as a donation, but currently maintains the grounds, along with the Bennington Centre Cemetery Association.

"It's my pleasure," Dewey said. "I usually like working alone. I made furniture a lot and I don't even like anyone else in my workshop. I have to concentrate on what I'm doing. And, most people have many other things to do. The cemetery doesn't have the money to do it. So I just decided to do it. I can see the difference now. [People] are wandering through the cemetery and reading the signs I put up."

He said people would come up to him looking for Robert Frost's grave, even with the existing arrows and signs directing toward it. This led him to add signs for other historical graves. New signs will be printed on PVC (polyvinyl chloride) material to last longer.

One sign at the front of the cemetery reads, "Gov. Issac Tichenor (1754-1838) A New Jersey lawyer, who in 1777 was a quartermaster for the Northern Army under General Schuyler of Albany, N.Y. After 1777 he remained in Bennington holding many state offices including U.S. senator, chief justice and 11 years as governor of Vermont."

The signs are being placed to "make a walk through the cemetery more meaningful," Dewey said.

Dewey knows much history about the first town in Vermont, but said he fact checks at the library or in some of his history books about people like Hiland Hall, for example. Along with Frost's stone sits the notable Colgate, Conkling, and Putnam family, governors, and American Revolutionary War veterans. Some plots have foot stones and others have iron fencing around them, which also need to be maintained, Dewey said. A lot of the stones are made out of marble, which doesn't take to weathering well, while others are made out of granite and last longer. Dewey said many stones are hand inscribed.

The cemetery is the oldest one in the state and is owned by the town. The association has an endowment that pays for the lawn care while all other work is done voluntarily or through donations. That work consists of tree planting or removing, repairing broken grave stones and maintenance on the Monument Avenue fence, according to Dewey.

Upon Frost's grave sits pennies and other various change and rocks. Dewey said he doesn't understand why people do it, but he wished they didn't. The first time he gathered the change and cashed it in, there was $57.

The cemetery next to the Old First Church is located at 1 Monument Circle in Old Bennington. The cemetery stretches over a hill down behind the Bennington Museum. For tours or more information, call 802-447-1223.

— Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.


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