NORTH SMITHFIELD – The town is on track to own two new parcels of land: historic cemeteries abutting the privately-owned Union Cemetery that were long-neglected prior to work by the North Smithfield Heritage Association in recent years.
Councilors voted 4-0 to have the town take ownership of Old Aldrich Burial Grounds and the Old Town Burial Grounds on request from NSHA President Richard Keene. Councilor Douglas Osier, who serves as treasurer of the NSHA, recused himself from the vote on Monday, Dec. 5.
“It’s preserving the dignity of someone’s resting place,” Keene said. “We’re trying to maintain the dignity of a burial ground.”
Keene noted that the lots – which each consist of about one acre each – had been abandoned for decades before volunteers with his organization began cleaning them around five years ago.
“It was a jungle back there,” Keene said. “We started cleaning it out.”
The NSHA president said volunteers have spent many hours taking out brush, clearing poison ivy and weeds, and even learned how to repair headstones.
“Vandals went in and there was serious damage to a lot of the gravestones,” Keene said.
Restoration work on the two lots is now 90 percent complete, according to Keene.
“It’s almost like a park now,” he told councilors. “People come in and walk around.”
Also known as Hotchkiss Cemetery, the Old Aldrich Burial Grounds or Rhode Island Historic Cemetery NS031 includes 120 graves, the oldest of which is from 1833 and the newest from 1980, according to rhodeislandhistoriccemeteries.org.
The site notes that by the south entrance to Union Cemetery, Old Town Burial Grounds, or NS036, holds 136 burials, with the oldest dated 1830 and the newest 1979.
The lots are among 55 historic cemeteries in town, many of which have been located by the volunteers since the project began in 2017. A group of some 60 workers have been involved in the project over the past five years, including many retirees from in and around town.
“Much work remains,” notes a call for more help on the Heritage Association’s website. “Mother Nature is a relentless adversary.”
Keene estimated that 15-20 historic cemeteries in North Smithfield remain abandoned.
One problem with the two highly visible plots located by Union, Keene said, is that old trees in both have started to lose limbs, presenting a hazard for volunteers.
“We’d like to trim the branches to make it safer,” Keene said.
“The other problem is the amount of leaves. Trying to move those things is a herculean effort,” he added. “It takes a lot of people a lot of time every year to move them. The blowers can only blow leaves so far. “
“We need a little help from the highway department,” Keene said, noting that the town’s DPW staff sometimes helps out with leaves currently, using a vacuum unit on a town dump truck.
Keene urged the council to have the town take control of the properties to provide authority for DPW employees to help with maintenance work that can’t be done by volunteers.
“People may say ‘why’s the town on private property?'” he said of the informal arrangement with DPW over the past few years.
He noted having the town take possession of the land will also help to provide a more permanent solution to the problem.
“It’s more likelihood for continuity,” Keene said. “People forget. You folks aren’t going to be here forever. Over time, it reverts back to the jungle it was five years ago.”
Councilor Paulette Hamilton asked about the town’s potential liability on the properties.
“State law provides protection from liability for volunteers who work in the cemeteries,” Keene said, noting that from town staff, the group only needs, “occasional assistance.”
“We have a great working relationship,” he said.
DPW Director Raymond Pendergast said his staff typically uses their down time to get the needed work done in a few hours.
“Rich will call me every now and then,” Pendergast said. “I have a hard time watching volunteers over the age of 60 & 70 lifting heavy equipment. I don’t have a problem with it. He doesn’t ask much.”
Keene noted that currently, there’s no owner of record for either of the lots.
Councilor John Beauregard questioned if residents would be in support of the action.
“I’m all for it, but what if somebody’s not?” asked Beauregard. “What if somebody in town pays taxes and they could care less about cleaning historic cemeteries. We’ll be sending our workers. I don’t know if that’s really fair.
“Some towns have taken possession of all of the historic cemeteries. They do all of the maintenance themselves,” Keene responded, noting that generally, people in North Smithfield seem to support preservation. “I don’t think what we’re asking to do is unreasonable. I don’t think there’s going to be an uprising. I think this is a pretty non-controversial issue.”
Councilors voted to take possession of the lots pending advertisement of the plan to ensure no one claims the properties.