Around the Island

DAR, Historical Society push to preserve gravestones

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Flags being placed at an historic grave on Memorial Day. Advocates for restoration say the Island’s history is literally written in stone.


As part of its ongoing effort to engage the Shelter Island Community in the renovation of the historic Presbyterian Church burial grounds, the Daughters of the American Revolution will be offering a two-day Gravestone Preservation Workshop led by conservator Jonathan Appell, on Sunday, June 23 and Monday, June 24.

The restoration of the cemeteries, known as the North and South Burying Grounds, is a long range project the Shelter Island DAR has undertaken to preserve these artifacts of Island history. The two plots of land that straddle Route 114 in the Center contain some 535 primary monuments that date from the colonial era through modern times. According to Karen Kiaer, the DAR project’s chair, “there are more than 20 patriots and more than 50 Civil War veterans” who are buried there, as well as hundreds of local islanders whose descendents still live here — names such as Bowditch, Congdon, Clark, Dickerson, Tuthill and more.

The restoration program on the Island, according to Ms. Kiaer, is “extremely hands-on.” On Sunday evening, there will be a dessert event at the Presbyterian Hall with Mr. Appell and Southampton Town Historian Zachery Studenroth who conducted a comprehensive survey of the two plots in the winter of 2011 and subsequently outlined a program for treatment of the stones and markers.  The Historical Society, which is sponsoring this event, will be raiding its archives to costume Islanders, some of whom are descendents of those buried in the cemetery, and historical folk music will be performed. This event is open to the public.

The two-day interactive workshop, entitled, “Stone by Stone,”  will introduce participants to the problems associated with the preservation of stones and monuments; cleaning techniques for the different materials found on this site; raising, re-leveling and re-setting gravestones; repair of fallen stones and much more. Written course materials and all tools will be provided. Attendees will help perform some of the work but no prior experience is necessary. Event chair Sarah Shepherd, an herbalist, will also be giving a talk entitled, “Pushing up daisies” about historical and cemetery plantings.

Ms. Shepherd urged everyone, professionals and volunteers alike, to attend. It’s a wonderful way to “celebrate the echoes of our past, retold through stories, historical costumed interpreters and hands-on demonstrations.”

Since it publicly announced its intention last summer to undertake this project, the DAR has been busy raising money and writing grant proposals to underwrite the effort. “Our focus to date has been on finding the money to do the physical restoration work,” Ms. Kiaer said.

While she declined to provide either a fund raising target or the amount raised so far, she said that the DAR is approaching the project on a cost-per-monument basis. The grounds, she said, contain about a dozen unique “table top” monuments.  “Each of these table tops costs anywhere from $3,000-$6,000 to restore.”  One of these monuments belongs to Jonathan Nicoll Havens who was part of the New York delegation that approved the federal Constitution in 1788. Havens also served as the Island’s town clerk, a New York State Assemblyman and a United States Congressman until his death in 1795.

According to Ms. Kiaer, the DAR hopes to have every organization on Shelter Island be part of this effort. In addition to partnering with the Historical Society, the group has been in discussions with the Shelter Island School to develop a curriculum that “gets at the stories behind the people who are buried there.”

Other Islanders interested in gardening, landscaping or other aspects of the project will also be welcomed. Unlike other towns, such as Southampton, where cemeteries are owned by the municipality, this property belongs to the Presbyterian Church, which does not have the funds for the restoration effort but is supporting the DAR in its work. The organization has plans to work with the town on the subject of financial assistance.

The DAR believes that preserving these monuments is a critical part of maintaining the history of Shelter Island. These stones are the earliest public records of the town, said Ms. Kiaer. “And as such, it’s the municipality’s responsibility to maintain and care for them. Once they have fallen into disrepair, we’ve lost that history.”

The cost of the two-day seminar is $25; the Sunday evening dessert event is $10.  Places can be reserved in the workshop by emailing [email protected] or calling Ms. Kiaer at 749-1853.