Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
May 25, 2021

Honoring the Dead: Cemetery Stories from Delaware County

Honoring the Dead: Cemetery Stories from Delaware County
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This Memorial Day week, we visited two area cemeteries where historians are taking steps to memorialize former Catskills residents in the towns of Delhi and Roxbury. At the Roxbury Methodist Church cemetery, gravestones obscured by years of algae and lichen growth are being restored with a special cleaning agent and some good ol' historian elbow grease. And in Delhi, a poorhouse cemetery lost in time is finally getting the recognition and care that it deserves. 

County historian Gabrielle Pierce is working with Christa Schafer's Delaware County Office, to restore stones to hundreds of graves in Delhi, NY. And in Roxbury, historians Diane Galusha and Anthony Liberatore scrub 80 years of grime to renew a marble headstone.

Kaatscast is supported by WIOX Community Radio, live and local in the Catskills; and by the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway

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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via otter.ai

Brett Barry  0:03  
Welcome back to Kaatscast, the biweekly podcast featuring local interviews, arts and culture, and history in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. This Memorial Day week, we visited two area cemeteries where historians are taking steps to remember former Catskills residents in the towns of Delhi and Roxbury. At the Roxbury cemetery, gravestones obscured by years of algae and lichen growth are being restored with a special cleaning agent and some elbow grease; and in Delhi, a cemetery lost in time is finally getting the recognition and care that it deserves. An 1824 New York State mandate specified that a poorhouse was to be established in each county. Four years later (in November of 1828), Delaware County built its first poorhouse and a cemetery to serve that population, but most of the grave markers have long since disappeared and sunken grassed spots are the only remaining indicator of the bodies buried beneath. Plans are underway to identify and mark those graves and to establish public access to the site and that's where we begin our story at the office of Delaware County's Clerk of the Board, Christa Schafer. She's been working with the county historian and town officials toward this goal.

Christa Schafer  1:30  
You can see here these are sunken graves right here.

Historians  1:34  
Sure I can see him. Yeah.

Christa Schafer  1:36  
And that's what we're running into. Is this section A? My name is Christa Schafer (Clerk of the Board of Supervisors). I'm part of the project of getting the poorhouse cemetery renovated back to where people can see it and they honor to those that are buried there. The county did not own the property. Apparently, it was sold way back to the college and because the college sold some of the property to the city. The city cannot own a cemetery. So the college deeded us the property back; and since that point in time, we've been looking at trying to renovate it. It's sad because a lot of these people that were there were either living at the poorhouse because they had mental problems. They were poor. They were destitute or had no place to go; and it's just sad; and it's time now that we pay tribute to them because we're a lot more fortunate than they are, you know, and it's just sad to see the state that it's in right now.

Brett Barry  2:42  
County historian (Gabrielle Pierce) showed us around the site just a couple miles south of Christa Schafer's Delaware County Office in Delhi, New York.

Gabrielle Pierce  2:52  
In 1824, New York State passed a mandate that every county had to have a poor house for the poor and the indigent; and that also kind of veered off into housing for what was then legally known as feeble minded, insane, and lunatics; and there would be court proceedings that would say, "Yes, this person is a lunatic and needs to be housed in this place." So every county (in New York State) had at one time ... a poorhouse. The Delaware County Courthouse Cemetery ran from about, as far as we know it, 1828 to 1963. The most recent burials we know about would have been in the 1940s; and there's about 402 buried here that we know of for sure.

Christa Schafer  3:41  
A lot of the markers were stolen from the graves. Probably, I would say, "Six years ago, I went for a walk across the street from the hospital and my friend and I were just looking for some reason we looked at this driveway and she saw a stone," and I said, "Jeez! Where are the numbers on the stone?" And she said, "I have a gut feeling I know where they came from," and back then Sheriff Tom Mills was involved in the project assisting Gabrielle and trying to get this restoration done. When we contacted him, there were cemetery markers. There is one small section of the cemetery where there are still existing stones and all the stones from just about every poorhouse has only numbers, no names, no dates, just numbers.

Brett Barry  4:36  
Gabrielle Pierce explained further with the team at the county building.

Gabrielle Pierce  4:41  
I have several record books that are called "Keeper's Registers." Some of them (the ones that make me happy) noted down the number of the stone that ... that person was buried with, but (of course) in the sunken area with no stones at all. We have no way of knowing who is buried in any of those graves. So I do have a list of 8 names out of 402 can be matched to stones which is very sad. For example, we have stone number 14 in Section C goes with Thomas Scott, who was admitted into the poorhouse (January 20, 1936) died two days later aged 54. He goes with stone number 14, stone number 84, stone number 90-96, and so on are just unknowns. So we have a handful, literally (402 that we know of who were buried there).

Historian  5:47  
As opposed to doing individual markers, has anyone talked about doing like a monument that's true all of them?

Christa Schafer  5:55  
They're actually is one. It says there are no recognizable stones which is not true. It gives a slightly different number of those buried there, but it is a tribute stone that Marianne Greenfield (she is the town of Delhi's historian, she's on her own dime) had the Board of Supervisors approved that and to set it there, but having the individual stones like this, the markers is important to show all those graves.

Gabrielle Pierce  6:23  
I don't think that would be a bad idea somewhere down the road to do that; to honor those that we can't find that can't be marked where we know definitely there's grades there. We want markers there.

Christa Schafer  6:36  
Yeah, the stones as they sit are in the right spots.

Gabrielle Pierce  6:39  
And I'm sharing the ground there, there's more that are covered over with dirt, if we go poking.

Christa Schafer  6:46  
Or you can go poking because I wouldn't know where to poke and if I poked inside ...

Gabrielle Pierce  6:50  
I do it all the time.

Christa Schafer  6:52  
I have nightmares. See smoke coming off the bottom of my sneakers.

Gabrielle Pierce  6:56  
I run the president of the board for the Croton Union Cemetery in Treadwell; and whenever we do a burial, we got to poke to make sure where the edge of the neighboring vault is, and then we measure out to put the new burial. So we poke. It is a little odd, but you're poking the top of the vault in that case (not the actual casket here). Of course, there's no vaults, which is why all the graves or something. That's why modern cemeteries most of the time require cement vaults, so the graves don't sink.

Christa Schafer  7:40  
There's no place for people to recognize where to go or anything and that's one of the things that Sean is a landscape architect. He's going to design for us.

Sean Leddy  7:51  
My name is Sean Leddy. I'm a landscape architect. I work for the county and I'm at this meeting to learn what my role will be in this project. I'm just factfinding and gathering an understanding of the project and look forward to assisting in proposing solutions for accessibility and signage and whatever else may come out of the project.

James G. Ellis  8:14  
I'm Jim Ellis (Thomas Meredith Supervisor).

Christa Schafer  8:18  
He's also a professor up at the college and he has worked on this project with us for a while now and is very well-versed on it and knows a lot more than I do (that's for sure).

James G. Ellis  8:30  
We definitely want to make sure that we have our (if you will) geographic points on ... on the different corners of the cemetery. We also want to make sure that where we're going to do work is within the boundaries of this piece of property that we now have possession of. Mr. Leddy is here from the county planning office, so he's going to help us with planning a reasonable walkway up to the cemetery area. Something that's a little more accessible and also look at helping us doing some design around the (now) sheep barn, which will be basically the pavilion for the kiosk and for visitors to enter the location, and then possibly go on up to the cemetery. So that's kind of where we're at. We're very infantile on our stage of development here and, you know, we're just (at this point) bringing everything together. There's a lot of different parts to this puzzle and every part of this puzzle is important because without it, we don't have a complete puzzle. So we've got to pull all the parts together, we've got to make a really good design and we've got to pitch this out, so that it is acceptable and palatable to the taxpayer of Delaware County. That's one of the biggest thing is ... is trying to make sure that we put this in efficiently and economically and have public access to this location and that's ... that's the biggest thing. That's happening very slowly, but it is happening; and I think it will say that it's happening methodically. We don't want to try to do things twice or three times or four times and we certainly want to make sure that when we can have people lined up, we're ready for those folks. So a lot more planning and I think the action will be rapid.

Christa Schafer  10:07  
There's people that had been interested in the cemetery for quite a while and had been after us trying to get this restored, even though it wasn't our property. Well, there's still people here that have lived in Delhi for years; and remember, the poorhouse and what's left of the poorhouse is just a part of the foundation, which is now part of the college property. Delhi still has one person that used to live in that poorhouse. Her father used to be the commissioner of social services ... and so she lived there and she was brought up there as a child. She was there between fifties and sixties and it was a very genteel place. People were treated with extreme respect.

Gabrielle Pierce  11:12  
It was a working farm.

Christa Schafer  10:53  
She had no idea that the earlier years from the poorhouse were not genteel and pleasant and she was pretty horrified (actually), but she gave her experiences and it is so wonderful to hear from someone who was actually living there. So it's gone through different transformations.

James G. Ellis  11:15  
I don't think the general public is aware of it as far as going to visit family members or possible ancestors or ... or even town history to that matter. I mean, there's ... there's folks from all different towns and counties throughout New York State in this home. Again, it's not officially open to the public, but it is open space. The project will change it to be an available open space and our main goal is make sure that it's safe and accessible; and as you can see, the divots were the ... the graves are the sunken holes. They're just places for people to fall into and trip and things like that. We want it not to be that way and these folks deserve a lot more respect than they've been given in the past, so these souls been forgotten too long.

Gabrielle Pierce  12:09  
We are in the town of Delhi on Arbor Hill Road (not too far from the intersection with Scotch Mountain Road) and right before it turns into Back River Road. I spent a lot of time researching both cemeteries and poorhouses and to have it right here in our county right in this town is just very historically exciting. I've been pushing for this for years; and before me, there was a gentleman by the name of Charles Eustis. He was an older man and he tried real hard to get this project going and he was on his own doing it solo and a lot of people just didn't listen to him. Some people laughed at him. He worked real hard to find records. He wrote letters upon letters upon letters to legislators, politicians, everybody he could think of, and he just couldn't get the attention that it needed. What really got a lot of attention in recent years was when New York City DEP wanted to purchase the 200 acres in this area, but they could not purchase the cemetery that had to be surveyed off. So Caddie College returned it (transferred it back to the county). So this area did get some attention for a while and that was when former Sheriff Tom Mills was very involved in that and ... and sucked me in that there was something finally going on, and then we had the students from the South Kortright Boys School; maintaining it, mowing it for about a year. They did a tremendously wonderful job, and then that didn't last because the school closed down. So that was another wrench in the works, and then I just kept nagging people basically to tell you the truth; and I have to say, "I'm extremely excited that the county is now doing this," and I owe that to Christy Schafer, Jim Ellis, mostly in really saying, "Yeah, this has to be done."

This barn that stands here was on the poorhouse grounds because just about every poorhouse had its own farm. They tried to be as self sufficient as possible. They grew their own food. They butchered their own hogs and cows. The one in Binghamton still has all those buildings. It's very exciting to see that they had their own powerhouse a lot of times to create their own electricity. They had their own water supply, which I suspect there's a reservoir up here on the hill somewhere and they had their own cemetery because they had to have a place to bury the folks that families did not claim or could not afford to bury to the best of our knowledge. There is 402 buried here that we're pretty certain about (could be more), but that's the number that we know of due to various records that I've been able to put together.

Brett Barry  15:14  
So each one of these will get a marker.

Gabrielle Pierce  15:16  
Yep, on a base with a sign on it that says "Delaware County Poorhouse Unknown." Because we have no way of knowing who's there, who's there. There's just no way. The city cemetery in Pepacton relocated hundreds of cemeteries when the reservoir came. So now there's a nice relocated cemetery called Pepacton and the lady who did those markers is the same one whose doing these (Jackie Mason). So there's supposed to be in development: a parking area, signage, informational kiosk ... I hope we see an improved pathway from a new parking area that is going to be developed. They're designing that now a good accessible pathway that would take people safely up instead of climbing through brush and trees. There'll be no doubt at that time that this is a cemetery whereas now, people might think that's just an empty field. So ...

Brett Barry  16:26  
After the break, we visit a cemetery in Roxbury, New York, where gravesites have always been lovingly marked and cared for, but where algae, lichens, and dirt have obscured some of the headstone engravings. Historians in that community have the supplies and the know how for some cemetery spring cleaning.

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Diane Galusha  0:08  
The family of George and Viola Stewart sent us $50 as a donation to clean the front and back of this stone. This is a white ... looks like a white marble stone (heavily infested with some kind of black algae) and we are going to attempt to clean it up and make it a little more legible. You can see that the black has pretty much obscured: the names and the dates. So we're gonna try to bring it back to some ... something close to the way it looked when it was first put here. I'm Diane Galusha. I'm the president of the historical society (The Town of Middletown).

Anthony Liberatore  0:45  
My name is Anthony Liberatore. I'm the town historian for the town of Roxbury and involved with a lot of things with Diane Galusha. I came along to see how the cleaning process works and we'll probably do more of it in the future.

Diane Galusha  0:57  
This is the Methodist Church Cemetery in Roxbury. It is a beautiful May Day and we're about to clean a headstone. This is the headstone for George and Viola Stewart. The Historical Society of the Town of Middletown launched fundraising effort this year to raise some money from people who would like the cemetery stones of their family members or friends cleaned and we have a special substance that we use is called D2 and it's very effective. So we asked for donations from folks to pay for this efforts. We have volunteers and we're going around to a number of cemeteries in the Middletown area and ... and Roxbury is included (kind of) in that general area; cleaning maybe 16-20 stones and various cemeteries in the area. This D2 substance that we're using, which is a biologically derived cleaning agent, is used in other national parks for various monuments and the national cemetery. So it's proven, but it does work a little bit differently on different stones. So it's not always as effective for every single stone. Make sure the area you're about to clean is wet, and then you take this D2, and then you spray it all over and you wait, you know, five or ten minutes, and then you use a brush (kind of firm but not a wire brush), and then you use water to wash the debris off, and then you'll see how ... how much you took off with that first round and see if you have to do another one or two times around, but usually it's ... it's pretty striking the difference after the first go around. So ... so we'll see. This is the first year we've done this as a fundraiser for donations, but we have cleaned stones in the past. We do a living history cemetery tour every year ... and so we try to clean up the stones of the featured people that we visit during the tour. Yeah, it's the first time we've opened up to the public and there's a lot of interest because a lot of folks live elsewhere and they would really like to have their, you know, parent's or grandparent's stones taken care of and there's nobody really to do that unless they do that. So I learned this actually (from Marianne Greenfield), who is involved with the Association of Gravestone Studies and she has her own cemetery cleaning service based in Delhi and she gave a workshop at the Clovesville Cemetery for several years ago and introduced us to D2, which can be purchased through a company called Atlas Preservation and, you know, you can buy a kit that has scrapers and brushes and ... and spray bottle and stuff like that. So ... so it's not really rocket science, it just takes a little time to do, but I mean (really) what a beautiful day to be doing this.

We have little ... little like popsicle sticks and a little skinny scraper to (kind of) get into, you know, between the ... the letters and the, you know, this ... the growth that may be in the letters are in the design. We did have several generous people who just sent us donations and said, "You know, this is a great idea." You pick the stone. So that was wonderful that, you know, we can determine what stone in which cemetery could use our help. Of course, once you do this and, you know, you do one stone in a cemetery and it's remarkable and it's lovely, but then you look around and there's, you know, 60 more ... that ought to be cleaned. So little by little, we'll get to it. Viola Stewart passed away in 1939 and her husband George in 1942. So I'm guessing that, you know, what hasn't been cleaned since then and I hope this is actually gonna do the trick because it's (sort of) hard to tell while you're still rubbing it and ... and ... and brushing it.

Brett Barry  5:38  
Diane and Anthony sprayed, brushed, and scraped 80 years of dirt and grime from the Stewart stone. It's hard to tell how effective the cleaning is; until the stone gets one more water spray to remove the cleaning solution and loosened dirt.

Diane Galusha  5:55  
Wow! Black ... black is going. Oh, that's awesome. A couple ... a couple of go rounds, I think we'll really brighten it up.

Anthony Liberatore  6:21  
Next month, I think we're going to inventory the same ... this very cemetery. So we're going to get information off of each stone and because it's not a very good documentation of it; a lot of the cemeteries around. So we're going to start with this one, it's fairly small and should be fairly easy and good learning curve and Diane's done it many times, she's going to actually teach us and show us how to do it. So we're looking forward to that next month.

Diane Galusha  6:44  
Inventory process is basically recording the inscriptions on each of these stones: the names and the dates of birth and death and any ... any epitaphs or any family members that are included on those headstones and those inventories are then placed on the Delaware County history and genealogy website, which has ... I don't know how many ... couple 100 probably cemeteries currently on there and it allows people. Genealogists and other researchers from anywhere to be able to find out where their ancestors are buried and the birth and death dates, which is pretty critical. Right now, this cemetery at the Roxbury Methodist Church is only documented with a map, which just has the last name, I believe, not even the first name.

Anthony Liberatore  7:38  

Diane Galusha  7:39  
You know, and ... and so you can (sort of) pinpoint where people with that last name might be, but other than that, you know, nothing about ... about it (about their lifespan or anything else). So that's why we're going to tackle this cemetery with volunteers. In June, I think. The volunteers who show up here to help to record these inscriptions will do so carefully and legibly and someone else than will; another volunteer will put those on a database, and then send them to the website for posting.

Anthony Liberatore  8:14  
So is there anyone out there that knows how to do that and willing to volunteer? Let us know.

Diane Galusha  8:19  
I think it's interesting that we have these kids here, you know, who have nothing in mind except today and maybe their future, maybe next week, their future, you know, and I hate to say it, but this is our ... all of our future right here in the cemetery. Not this particular one, but this is what the future holds for most of us is the end of the line.

Brett Barry  8:46  
Most of us.

Diane Galusha  8:48  
Oh yeah. Well, that would be everybody, I guess. Yeah, everybody.

Brett Barry  8:57  
Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Recording and editing by our production intern, Skye Ruse. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found and give us a rating to help other listeners find us. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.