HARVARD — The cast-iron grave markers in the town’s Shaker Burial Ground have been a silent reminder of Harvard’s historical roots for over 100 years, and a group of local officials are now working together to ensure they stay intact for future generations.
It’s a project that has brought together the Historical and Cemetery Commissions — two groups with different purposes, but also a shared interest in seeing recent deterioration of those markers reversed.
“It’s something that has to be done now to preserve these markers,” said Cemetery Commission Chairman Bruce Dolimont.”Some are rusting, some have cracks in the paint and metal. It’s a unique type of marker and we want to preserve them in the cemetery the way they are.”
Toward that end, Dolimont has worked alongside Roseanne Saalfield of the Historic Commission to develop a request for $5,655 of Community Preservation Act funds for annual town meeting this spring. If approved, those funds would pay to have a consultant develop a restoration plan that would respect the historical value of the site off South Shaker Road.
Unclear at this point is the cost of restoring roughly 300 cast iron markers and Saalfield said they really won’t know the options until the consultant determines how they were originally maintained. That said, her expectation was that it isn’t going to be cheap but added it could draw widespread interest from historical aficionados, when the times comes.
“It’s not inconceivable that we could start a fundraising effort that would go beyond the boundaries of Harvard — there’s a community of people who care very much about Shakers and Shaker history, whether that community has any interest in the Shaker burial ground in Harvard, I don’t have a clue, but it would be shortsighted to spend much time talking about how we’re going to fund it, until we know how much it’s going to cost,” she said.
As the Historical Commission’s designee on the project, Saalfield has become something of an expert on its history, which she draws from a folder of notes and records that’s at least three inches thick.
First and foremost, she agreed with Dolimont that the site is unique, saying Shakers across the country refurbished their burial sites in the late 19th century and that Harvard’s village was the only recorded instance where they stuck with individual makers. In every other instance, she said, the Shakers chose to remove the old stone markers and replace it with a single monument, thereby making their lives much easier.
Saalfield said such decisions were left to each Shaker village, but added there’s no clear record of why Harvard chose that route, saying only there’s one account that a traveling Shaker saw and admired some cast iron markers while visiting Kentucky.
Even less clear is what the markers originally looked like or if they were maintained, said Saalfield. She said the burial ground was given to the town when the last Shakers left in 1918, and that a wide variety of ad hoc caretakers have performed maintenance since then. Culling Cemetery Commission records, Saalfield said the list includes women’s groups, garden clubs, and — most recently — the Boy Scouts in the early ’90s. On one of those occasions — it’s not clear which — the markers were all painted white.
Whether the markers will be repainted or restored to their original form will likely depend on several key factors, continued Saalfield. While historical accuracy is a major factor, she said they’ll also need to consider the cost of implementation and maintenance, saying the final outcome will likely be a balance of those three factors.
“We want to come up with a method of preserving them that is both attractive and respectful of their history, while at the same time being respectful of manpower and cost and I don’t know what that’s going to be,” she said.
Efforts to restore the Shaker Burial Ground date back to over two years ago, when the Cemetery Commission identified the need and investigated prospects for restoring the markers by “powder coating,” which would essential strip the old paint and give them a fresh coat. Dolimont said that was estimated as costing $30,000, which they were hoping to fund through Community Preservation Act funds, which can matches state aid with local revenue for historical preservation projects.
However, the idea of powder coating historical markers by all accounts elicited concerns from Historical Commission Chairman Jonathan Feist, who wanted the historical analysis first. Eventually the groups agreed to wait until that could be done.
Having seen the two groups come together to sponsor the request for those funds, Saalfield was confident they’d be able to move forward together with the restoration, if the funding is approved. She also expressed hope the consultant’s study would provide some guidance for future generations as well.
“One of the things I really want to see come out of this is a maintenance program so that we’re not doing all this work, then turning our backs, walking away from the burial ground and crossing our fingers and hoping someone else will care as much as we do,” she said.