WEST HARTFORD — Central Connecticut State University history professor Matthew Warshauer is ready to introduce people to Old North Cemetery.
The North Main Street cemetery, visible from Warshauer’s front lawn, has always been of interest to him.
“I’ve been wanting to do something on this cemetery for years,” Warshauer said. “I’ve always been fascinated by old cemeteries.”
Warshauer said it wasn’t until he found the perfect graduate student in the form of Caleb Lincoln, who is working on earning his master’s degree in public history at the school, that the project truly came into form.
The plan is to study the history of the cemetery, formulate a plan for its conservation and educate the public about the contents and context of the cemetery and those who are buried there.
“It’s the perfect kind of project because it involves a deep dive into the history,” Warshauer said. “It involves public outreach. It involves conservation. It involves working with the town government. It’s all the skills that a good public historian needs.”
Warshauer said members of many of the town’s founding families are buried in the historic cemetery, and that it’s a good representation of West Hartford’s history.
“When it all comes down to it, our lives are about place and what defines that place,” he said. “For a long period of time, that cemetery — and I still think it does — defines the place that we call home. There are veterans of the American Revolution there, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American war ... and later wars as well. It really speaks to that sense of place and history.”
Conservation is going to play a big role in the project, Warshauer said. On Oct. 9 he will lead a workshop with conservationist Francis Miller of Conserve ART, who will assist with the project by creating a comprehensive conservation plan that outlines the needs of the cemetery and costs for long-term preservation.
This is critical, Warshauer said, due to the poor condition of the cemetery.
“If you walk through it, it’s in the worst condition that I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “There’s a lot of broken and damaged stones, there’s a lot of biological growth on the stones. Some of the big brownstone markers, it’s a very soft stone that starts to deteriorate over time.”
Warshauer said he thinks Miller’s workshop, which is already at full capacity, will spark immediate interest as he details the finer points of the cemetery and its gravestones.
Longer term, he’s hoping to create some kind of association for the cemetery — which is currently managed by the town — that can help support their plan for conservation and preservation. Further helping that would be placing the cemetery on the state’s historic register, making it eligible for grant funding.
“It’s almost like medical triage,” he said. “We want to determine which stones need attention first and which are in most danger of getting to a point where they no longer can be repaired. We can tackle those stones first and work our way out from there.”
Warshauer sees the project as a collaborative effort. The Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society, the Connecticut League of History Organizations, Conserve ART, the Connecticut Gravestone Network, West Hartford public schools and the Witness Stone Project are all involved.
“We did some outreach and we got this response from the community, of a fantastic cross section of people in town who know different things,” Warshauer said. “There are preservation people, there’s a former town librarian, there’s a architect and there are some teenagers.”
He hopes by the time the project is done and the public is educated on it, that people return to the cemetery to reflect on the town’s history. He notes that cemeteries used to be community gathering spaces, and points to the nearby Fairview Cemetery that attracts walkers, runners and other recreationalists on a daily basis.
“Back in the day ... cemeteries were a place where townspeople would go to congregate and have picnics and engage in social and leisure activities and games,” Warshauer said. “There were no parks. It’s not merely a resting place for the deceased. It’s that centerpiece of place. There is great history there and there’s great artistic and architectural beauty.”
It’s also no coincidence that he decided to launch the project in October, the same month the Noah Webster House hosts its annual West Hartford Hauntings event in the cemetery.
“We think of cemeteries and spooky stuff during that time in October, and maybe this helps publicize West Hartford Hauntings,” he said.
Warshauer said anyone interested in participating in the project should email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.