In the middle of one of the busiest areas of town, just feet from the highway on one side and the shops of Braintree Square on the other, sits a rarely-visited but vital part of Braintree's history.
The Elm Street Cemetery, across from the , dates back to the early 1700s and is one of the oldest cemeteries in Massachusetts. It is filled with well-known Braintree family names like Thayer, Hollis, Storrs and French. And now, after an extensive report initiated by the Braintree Historical Commission, the cemetery may soon see some much-needed attention.
On Sunday afternoon, Barbara Donohue, a consultant hired by the commission and author of the report, led a tour of the grounds, accompanied by Mayor Joseph Sullivan, President Paul Carr, representatives from First Congregational and other interested residents.
As Donohue explained the history of the cemetery – including the disruption and removal of many headstones and tombs and ongoing maintenance issues – a plan emerged that Donohue had crafted along with two groups that helped her examine the area; the non-profit preservation consultancy the Chicora Foundation and New England Geophysical, which performed radar scans to detect underground remains.
"It sounds overwhelming," Donohue said of the multi-part plan, "but baby steps will make that happen."
Donohue's recommendations, at an estimated cost of $250,000, include improving promotion of the cemetery to encourage visitation, establishing a clear code of conduct, instituting regular inspections to identify and reduce vandalism, repairing broken headstones, adding lighting, repointing and otherwise restoring tombs, and fixing the perimeter fence and wall.
The full report, in three sections, can be found here: http://www.townofbraintreegov.org/HistoricalCommissionnews.htm.
Community Preservation Act money, funded by a 1 percent slice of property taxes, could cover the costs. Mayor Sullivan said that the town should now digest what Donohue has proposed and come up with a 3- to 5-year plan to pay for the project in $50,000 to $75,000 annual appropriations, what he called "the most affordable option."
"There's some real deep interest in the preservation of this property," Sullivan said.
The mayor said the first step, along with finding a lost map of the cemetery, is constructing a new park slated to go in across the street on the church property, commemorating where John Adams gave the Braintree Instructions, kick-starting protests against the Stamp Act of 1765. This portion of Braintree, author John Dennehy said, is the most crucial to the town's historical significance.
The cemetery buried its first person a decade after the church was established in 1707 – Mrs. Elizabeth Niles, wife of Rev. Samuel Niles. She was followed by eight more burials that year, according to Donohue's report. Later, Rev. Niles was buried there, and then throughout the 19th century various changes to the land and its oversight were made until the Braintree First Parish Cemetery Association was incorporated to fund maintenance in 1898.
Donohue stresses throughout the report that maintenance has remained inconsistent for decades, even after the association was dissolved and the cemetery was placed under the care of the town. In 2008, the Cemetery Commission was replaced by the Department of Public Works, which oversees four town cemeteries. Most of the attention paid to the cemeteries focuses on the still-active Plain Street cemetery, according to the report.
The Elm Street Cemetery, previously known as the Braintree Cemetery, was deemed eligible in 2000 for the National Register of Historic Places, but has yet to receive placement on the federal list, as several of the issues Donohue mentioned stand in its way.
"Our first recommendation, therefore, is that those assuming care for the cemetery, especially the Town’s Department of Public Works, become thoroughly familiar with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation and reaffirm their responsibility as stewards of this historical resource to ensure that future preservation efforts are consistent with sound preservation principles and practices," the report states.