Southampton seeks preservation specialist to repair historic cemetery fence

  • High winds during an August 2021 storm took down a pine tree in Southampton’s Center Cemetery, damaging the cemetery’s historic cast-iron fence. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/ROBERT FLOYD

  • High winds during an August 2021 storm took down a pine tree in Southampton’s Center Cemetery damaged the cemetery’s historic cast iron fence. The colossal tree fell across College Highway/Route 10 in Southampton. —ROBERT FLOYD

  • Judith Miller Conlin, Cemetery Commission chairwoman, stands along the cast-iron fence that encloses Center Cemetery on Friday afternoon in Southampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Judith Miller Conlin, Cemetery Committee Chair, stands along the cast iron fence that encloses Center Cemetery on Friday afternoon in Southampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • The cast iron fence that encloses Center Cemetery on Friday afternoon in Southampton. The fence is in need of repair after sustaining significant damage from a fallen tree, as well as being struck by a vehicle in a separate incident. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • The cast iron fence that encloses Center Cemetery on Friday afternoon in Southampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Judith Miller Conlin, Cemetery Committee Chair, stands next to site of her 5th great-grandfather Elijah Clapp at the Center Cemetery on Friday afternoon in Southampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2022 7:59:46 PM
Modified: 8/21/2022 7:56:13 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — Last year proved to be a pretty discouraging one for the town’s Cemetery Commission.

After high winds from an August storm took down a large pine tree inside the historic Center Cemetery, the tree landed on the antique cast-iron fence surrounding the site and across College Highway/Route 10. In December, a hit-and-run driver crashed into one of the ornate columns at one entrance of the cemetery.

“Suffice to say, this fence has sustained significant damage,” said Judith Miller Conlin, chairwoman of the Cemetery Commission.

But as discouraging as the damage to the fence has been, what might be even more disheartening is the struggle to find someone who is capable of making the necessary repairs. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back a lot of projects and timelines for those workers in the trade fields, despite much effort in reaching out to potential leads, the commission hasn’t received a callback from any specialist in the field, according to Robert Floyd, a cemetery commissioner.

And without a callback, the commission cannot provide quotes that could lead to potentially securing grants or funding from the town’s Community Preservation Committee or American Rescue Plan Act.

“This kind of work is a specialty,” said Miller Conlin. “It’s difficult to find someone who is still in business to do this work, but also someone who can do this right — keeping it historically accurate and faithful to the fence.”

The cast-iron fence is more than 100 years old. References made to its purchase in town records date to Dec. 23, 1899, said Floyd. He noted that William Foley gave $1,000 to the town to have the fence built. From what he understands, Lyman Sheet Metal Company made the fence.

The first recorded burial was in March 1738 for 19-year-old Simeon Wait. According to the words on his gravestone, which are now illegible, Wait died from “drinking too much water.”

Miller Conlin noted that in the past, the fence, which is listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, was previously constructed out of stone. The fence has also been a picket fence and a post and rail fence.

Still, the commission has done its best to maintain the beauty of the historic fence. In 2017, some restoration work was done on two columns around one of the entrances of the cast-iron fence. John F. Graney Metal Design Co. of Sheffield performed the work for $3,000, according to Miller Conlin.

In addition to last year’s collision, which damaged the work done to the fence in 2017, Floyd said a car also crashed into the fence in 2006.

In 2020, a group of volunteers came out with paintbrushes to give the fence a fresh coat of paint.

What’s more is that despite earnest efforts over nearly four decades to maintain the fence, it continues to degrade.

“It is falling in disrepair and in danger of being destroyed by corrosion and time,” said Floyd. “It is clear that the only way to save this valuable historic town landmark is to embark on a professional program of refinishing and restoration.”

In the past, the commission had secured two bids in an effort to secure Community Preservation Act funds, which would restore the entire fence in two phases. The previous estimate for the first project was approximately $61,000 and $32,000 for the second project, said Floyd.

The commission plans to seek out some additional leads on potential contractors who might be available to assess the fence from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, he added.

In the meantime, Miller Conlin said the commission has secured $1,000 worth of paint — which is both expensive and thick. She and several others have thrown on another coat to a small section, but the work still has a ways to go.

“The cast iron gives you more of a sense that you’re entering history than, say, a chain-link fence,” she said. “To me, this cemetery is so much more than stones, names and statistics. You’ve got art, history geology … and there’s a lot to be honored and a lot to preserve.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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