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Correspondent

GROTON — For most, cemeteries would not be at the top of any list of fun places to pass the time.

But for anyone interested in history and the very real people who made that history, a cemetery, particularly old cemeteries, can be rich depositories of local lore. They can possess diagrams in stone of how communities like Groton developed over the years.

Enter Eleanor Gavazzi, local historian and lover of all things Groton.

Familiar around town as a historical reenactress, Groton booster, and past candidate for the Board of Selectmen, Gavazzi met on a recent Sunday afternoon with a few dozen like-minded souls on the grounds of the town’s Old Burying Ground. Her purpose, to conduct a tour and history lesson comprised of the lives of some of Groton’s most prominent and not so prominent former citizens.

For instance, there was Joshua Bentley who was one of the men who helped row Paul Revere across Boston Harbor so that he could embark on his famous midnight ride. And Revolutionary War veteran Jacob Patch, who went off with Washington’s army to die in the battle for White Plains, New York.

Then there are the less liked residents of the cemetery including members of the Park family, Scottish stone carvers who did not cotton to the Revolution and preferred to remain unpopularly neutral.

There was Benjamin Morse, who attended the Constitutional Convention, and refused to support the document unless it included more protections for civil liberties.

All rest under the earth of the Old Burying Ground. They lie alongside those often ignored by the history books such as children who died of disease, long-suffering wives of loyalists, and teenagers who ran off to war only to die on some far away battlefield.

In the early days of the town, of course, frontier families buried their dead on the homestead. But eventually, as the community grew, Groton’s residents began to congregate their dead in what only later would be called the Old Burying Ground. The phrase was first used sometime after 1680, about 25 years after the town was established by order of the Massachusetts General Court.

But even then, most graves continued to go unmarked until 1704, when the earliest dated gravestone commemorates the death of James Prescott on May 9 of that year. Prescott’s headstone was carved by his father, Jonas, a local blacksmith and first of the family to move to Groton circa 1675.

Scattered throughout the Old Burying Ground, located on Hollis Street, are the members of many of the town’s founding families, names that are as familiar today as they were in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Sawtell, Bancroft, Farnsworth, Farrington and Stone are some of those all-familiar names.

According to Gavazzi, over the centuries, between 5,000 and 7,000 people were interred in the Old Burying Ground. Today, those who lie in this sacred ground present a fascinating combination of the history of the town’s settlers, its early social structure, religious beliefs, geneology, and its warfare with savage Indians. John Longley, who was kidnapped by Abnaki Indians in 1694, along with his sisters Betty and Lydia, is buried here.

“I always find old cemeteries quite fascinating,” said local resident Roseann Saridakis. “There are lessons we can still take away today from the lives of the people buried in them. There’s tranquility in the peace and beauty of a well maintained cemetery, especially at this time of year.”

Saridakis joined others on that quiet afternoon for Gavazzi’s tour. Together, they wandered among the gray headstones as warm, mid-autumn sunshine dappled the rolling grounds and their feet crunched colored leaves beneath bare-limbed oaks and maples.

“To me, the most interesting things about the tour are the anecdotes about the people buried here,” added George Saridakis. “They really help to bring history into focus.”

“Basically, coming out today was an opportunity to learn more about the cemetery,” said Heather McGuirk. “It’s just another way of learning … it’s like going to an outdoor classroom!”

“I’ve only lived in Groton for four years and I wanted to learn more about the history of the town,” said Michele Theroux. “I wanted to find a way to connect with Groton as a community and this is a good way to do it. There’s so much history here not only of Groton but about the country.”

For her part, whether only a few people had come or the large crowd, Gavazzi’s enthusiasm for her subject would not have dimmed.

“I was very encouraged by the size of the group,” said Gavazzi following the two and half hour tour. “I was surprised that so many stayed to the end.”

Gavazzi said that although she came prepared with tour material, she is always ready to customize her tours and tailor them to whoever might show up.

But for those who attended, whatever information Gavazzi chose to impart would have been fine with them.

“I love this Old Burying Ground,” said Faith Little. “I love walking through it and seeing the stones and how their being grouped together tells something about families.

“I just think it’s a privilege to live in Groton,” she said, “and because of that, I want to learn more about the people who made the sacrifices that built the town. It’s a privilege just to walk among them.”