HARVARD — Assisted by donations and a small, dedicated army of hands-on volunteers, the Historical Commission has been working to restore one of the town’s most unique historic treasures: the 19th Century Shaker Cemetery.
Once a neglected site whose unkempt appearance attested to its age but not its historic value, the Shaker Cemetery restoration project, spearheaded by the HHC in partnership with the Cemetery Commission, brought an under-appreciated resource into its own.
The project has been ongoing for the past several years.
On Sunday afternoon, July 26, the Historic Commission hosted a celebration to thank the volunteers and local contractors who donated time and services to the project and to highlight the remarkable results so far.
Sketching the project and the recent program on the HHC website, Chairman Joe Theriault said the work included restoring the iron “lollipop” grave markers in the old burial ground while clearing overgrown grass and removing deteriorating pine trees that threatened the graves. Some markers were already damaged by falling limbs and trees.
Fabricated of cast iron using sand molds, the so-called Lollipop Markers are reportedly rare as well as unique to the Shakers and the Harvard Shaker Cemetery is the only one like it left in the world. Dating to the 1870’s, they still look fresh, Theriault commented, with well-delineated inscriptions, “reminding us of the Shaker’s technology and ingenuity” and of the simple perfection they strove to achieve in their communities.
Besides the interior spruce-up, the restoration included removing another 40 pine trees from the cemetery’s 20-foot perimeter. The additional work was done in cooperation with the Conservation Commission, which has jurisdiction of that land, Theriault said.
In keeping with the Shaker’s purposefully simple lifestyle, no rain date was set for the recent event. But despite an iffy forecast, 40 percent chance of rain, the weather held.
By 1 p.m. that day, people, including 66 project participants, began to arrive at the “venerable Shaker Cemetery” for the 2 p.m. event, parking along South Shaker Road, Theriault said.
Parking space is almost always at a premium in Harvard, but it was no problem, he said.
Program participants included Boy Scouts from Troop 1, headed by Don Graham and a couple of assistants. The Scouts raised the colors and led the Pledge of Allegiance.
The program included musicians and vocalists from Trinity Parish whose performances were beautiful but simply styled, as the Shakers would have wanted, Theriault said.
Two Shaker songs — “I will bow and be simple,” and “Simple gifts,” were featured.
“Simple Gifts” has been reproduced in recent years and sung by folk greats such as Judy Collins. In the jacket notes of one of her vintage albums, the song is described as a praise hymn based on an American traditional Shaker melody, with lyrics adapted from a Bible Psalm and authorship attributed to Shaker Elder Joseph Beckett, Jr. (1797-1882).
Speakers and notable attendees included Roben Campbell, an independent Shaker scholar who lives in Still River; Richard Tavelli, past president of Boston Area Shaker Study Group and three other BASSG members; Boy Scout Pat Pesa, whose Eagle Scout project, mentored by Theriault, was to fabricate a replica of the original wooden cemetery gate.
Local artist and painter Karen Dolimount created a reproduction sign for the gate and the Harvard Lions club paid for the red cedar lumber Resa used to construct it.
In addition to the commissioners, HHC and HCC, other VIP’s present included Fruitlands Museum Curator Mike Volmar, HHC Curator and Administrator Judy Warner and Marge Darby of Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area, based in Devens.
The speaker’s list also included Selectman Stu Sklar, who noted the importance of projects such as this in general- and the one that occasioned the celebration in particular. At a subsequent selectmen’s meeting, Sklar told his colleagues that the reproduction gate Pesa built for the cemetery was as handsome as it was functional and it worked perfectly.
Campbell, a consultant on Shaker matters, assisted the commissioners in correctly siting the grave markers, the locations of which can be found on the “Burial Map and Shaker Biographies” page of the HHC website.
Campbell spoke of Shaker origins and the societal hierarchy reflected in those locations.
For example, the most “pure and dedicated” Shakers were buried in the fist five rows of the cemetery on the west side, while five rows reserved for “less pure” members who had retained their ties to the world, were placed on the east side of the cemetery.
Separate rows were reserved for “sisters” and “brethren,” respectively, in keeping with the Shakers celibate way of life, in which men and women worked and worshipped together but slept apart. Bedrooms were laid out on two sides of communal residences such as the big house that still stands on South Shaker Road near the cemetery.
Now a beautifully remodeled private home, the main house in the South Shaker community, which once included an array of shops and outbuildings, featured separate entrances for male and female members.
The celebratory event at the Shaker Cemetery last month concluded with the unveiling of the gate. “Boy Scout Pesa escorted Karen Dolimount ” through the cemetery’s new, reproduction gate, Theriault said, generating enthusiastic applause.