Norwich ―― One of the largest outdoor “art galleries” in Norwich is getting a facelift this week, and the public is invited to watch as dozens of nearly 300-year-old gravestones intricately carved by local artists are repaired, straightened, reset and cleaned.
The Norwich Historical Society and the Society of the Founders of Norwich received a $7,000 grant from the Tenney Foundation to restore an estimated 30 to 60 damaged, lichen-covered and leaning gravestones in the Old Burying Ground at Norwich Town, located between Town and East Town streets near the Norwichtown Green.
The two societies contracted with the nonprofit volunteer group, Rediscovering History Inc. to perform the work, which started this past week, and will continue this coming Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The public is invited to observe the work and ask questions, but Historical Society Executive Director Regan Miner asked visitors not to try to assist with the cleaning or repairs of the stones, as the work is delicate and requires expertise and proper tools.
Mike Carroll of Columbia, head of Rediscovering History, will discuss the gravestone restoration work during the May 6 Colonial Days Living History event, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the Norwichtown Green, hosted by the Norwich Historical Society and the Society of the Founders of Norwich.
Miner thanked the Norwich Public Works Department for its assistance and for providing dirt and pea stone needed to reset the gravestones. The city owns the historic burying ground, which was created in 1700 as the Norwich settlers’ second burying ground. The first recorded burial was in 1705 for Deacon Simon Huntington. Miner said several thousand burials have been done there, but only about 1,300 to 1,400 have headstones.
Carroll and gravestone restoration expert David Oat of Waterford combed the older section of the burying ground this past week and picked out prime candidates for restoration work, marking them with small blue flags.
Oat noticed the badly damaged, broken and displaced stone for Love Backus’ grave, located at a prominent spot at the junction of two walking paths. He suggested starting the restoration with this stone, figuring it would be easy to dig out the buried stone base and put the pieces back together.
It ended up taking nearly the entire first day of work, he said. The gray granite weighs several hundred pounds. Oat laid a piece of plywood on the ground to lay out the pieces. Oat will use a strong epoxy to glue the pieces together before lifting the stone back into place. The pieces are so damaged, the group could not read the date of Backus’ death.
“I’m going to restore the whole thing,” Oat said. “It’s kind of like Humpty Dumpty.”
Carroll had an easier time with the 1774 headstone for Charles Avery, who died “in the 45th year of his age,” the stone reads. A portion of the stone’s base was gone, leaving a truncated triangular section to rebury as Carroll set the stone upright. Oat already had cleaned the stone, making the inscription more legible.
The historic burying ground houses the remains of numerous prominent Norwich figures, from Hannah Arnold, Benedict Arnold’s mother, his three siblings, who died as young children, the famous Samuel Huntington, Connecticut governor and president of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. Members of prominent Norwich families of Leffingwell, Backus, Lord, Avery and Huntington are buried there.
And Boston Trowtrow, the Black governor of Norwich in the traditional election by local people of African descent, is buried in the sloped rear section behind the modern Meadows Plaza strip mall, where local Black people were buried. A brochure for self-guided tours of the burying ground, available at the Old Cemetery Lane entrance, highlights Boston Trowtrow and gives the inscription for his grave:
Governor of ye Afri
can Trib he Died
May 28 1772
The gravestones for Hannah Arnold, who died in 1759, and children Elizabeth, Mary and Absalon, are perhaps the most popular gravesites for visitors. For years, an anonymous person had left roses at Hannah Arnold’s grave, and people still leave letters, flowers and objects, Miner said. One person wrapped a nearby modern post with descriptive plaque with white pathway stones – burying ground caretakers object to any such “landscaping” efforts. The stones ended up scattered by lawnmowers or feet.
For Oat and Carroll, the stories don’t end with the occupants of the graves. The two gravestone enthusiasts can walk through the burying ground and name individual gravestone carvers by their styles or time periods of the stones. Some are known only by nicknames.
There’s the “Ovoid Carver,” who used every inch of space on oval-shaped stones to carve names and dates. Only one stone carved by “the Bozrah Devil Carver,” named for the mischievous faces he carved, Oat said, has been found in the Norwichtown burying ground ― on Love Backus’ grave. There are plenty in Bozrah, he said. Another Norwich carver is known only as “the Charlie Brown Carver,” because his images resemble the Peanuts comic character, Oat said.
Most carvers did not sign their work, but they often carved the price of the stone at the base, which ended up buried and hidden from view. But Carroll found one price tag for “35,” presumably for shillings, carved by Jonathan Hartshorne. The number was high enough on the base of Joshua Abell’s 1725 stone to remain in view after Carroll reset the stone in the ground for visitors to see.
A quick survey of the sloped burying ground reveals gravestones in varying degrees of disrepair, some leaning forward, some backward, some to one side or the other, depending on erosion, wind, rainwater runoff or vandalism. Oat has been cleaning stones for years, revealing the early colonial angel heads, skeletons, intricate border carvings and inscriptions that have stood the test of centuries of sun, pollution and wind exposure.
Miner said it’s difficult to select individual stones for restoration, and the two societies will continue to apply for grants to continue the work.
“It was hard, because everywhere you look, you can say ‘that one, that one, that one needs repair,’” Miner said.