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Oak Hill Thriving

With Drive to Replace Trees

Watertown Daily Times, 03 18 2000



Oak fell Cemetery will be restored to the shady place it once was with the start of a drive to replace the trees. The 28-acre cemetery is known for its large oaks, but those trees have been disappearing with no new ones to take their place.


Some have been slowly dying but others have fallen en masse as the result of storms. "At the rate we're going, we won't hive a tree left in the cemetery in 25 years," said Allen Campbell, a member of the Oak Mil Cemetery board of directors who is also on the tree committee. He pointed out that the cemetery lost 18 trees a few years ago and has lost many l00-year-old trees within the last five years.


The cemetery board is giving the public an opportunity to purchase trees at $250 each for placement in 'the cemetery in honor or in memory of a loved one. The money will cover the cost of one tree at least 2 inches in diameter, purchased wholesale and planted by cemetery staff. "We want bigger trees with some size to them so they will grow faster and be less susceptible to vandalism," explained Campbell, noting that the money would not cover the cost if the cemetery had to hire an outside company to do the planting. Several people have already purchased trees.


The campaign will focus on replenishing the trees in the cemetery, but not necessarily oaks. "We are going to replace trees with oak, little leaf linden, sugar maple and white ash," said Campbell, who added that the board wants a greater variety than in the past.


Although trees will be placed all over the cemetery, special attempts will be made to place the donated tree in an area of interest to the donor. Each tree will have a plaque listing a name. The donor has a choice of location, but board members will decided on the type of tree.


The loss of trees is currently the cemetery's most pressing problem, even more so than vandalism, but the 134-year-old burial ground is also suffering from an identity crisis. "Lot sales are way down," said Michael Chartier, secretary and manager of Oak Hill, which is owned and operated by a cemetery association.


The cemetery is not city-owned, but the association does receive an operating subsidy from the city. "We have, lots of space, but many people think we are full, even though we opened a new section last year," said Chartier.


The perception of the cemetery being full has led to a loss of income to maintain the cemetery, which still has enough land to serve the city for the next 150 years. Income comes from sale of grave sites which can be purchased in any number, ranging from one plot to a lot' which has eight grave sites. Purchase of two grave sites is most common, followed by half-lots with four grave sites. The cemetery does have a few other options for income, including perpetual care.


In addition to purchasing a grave site, a person can donate $ 1,000 for perpetual care which entitles the grave to have flowers planted near the stone and a wreath at Christmastime.  


If a person wants to sell back to the cemetery an unused grave that was purchased long ago, the transaction can be a moneymaker for the cemetery, but not for the seller. "If a person wants to sell an unused grave back to the cemetery, we look up the owner. If the owner paid $10 for it, they get $10 back. That's state law - the owner can't make a profit on it. But then we can sell it for today's price," said Chartier. "That's how a cemetery is operated. People think of it as just cutting the grass, digging a hole and burying someone, but there is a lot more to it than that."


The cemetery can also reclaim plots that have been inactive for over 50 Years and sell them for today’s prices, said Chartier, who has been secretary and manager since January 1966.


In addition to working with the records and finances, he supervises the maintenance staff which in summer includes six full-time people. His duties include fielding frequent calls from genealogists -searching for their ancestors. "If they have the name and the date of death, I can find it fairly quickly, but we have had to start charging for longer searches that take a lot of time," he said.


Bob Lund, who was secretary and manager from 1986 to 1996, said, "We try to rebuy a lot so we can resell it, but it is just like buying a house or any other piece of property. It is passed down through the family, and quite a few graves are pre-bought."


Although the sold lots are owned by families, not the cemetery, the cemetery often has to maintain older lots with no living family members. "People get the deed to the property so the cemetery no longer owns the land," said Glenn Schwoch, president of the cemetery association. "That's one of the problems with vandalism - the monuments are insured by the home owner's policy, but, for example, people from back in the 1870s no longer have a home owner's policy, so the work falls back to the cemetery."


Cemetery staff members make every effort to maintain grave markers, even if family members are long gone. Many very old stones have been uprighted or straightened over the years at the cemetery's expense.


Oak Hill is the final resting place of many prominent Watertown people such as city founder Timothy Johnson, businessman John W. Cole, Octagon House builder John Richards and his family, Dr. John P. Quinney who was a Stockbridge Indian chief who died in 1875, pioneer historian Dr. William Whyte and brewer William Hartig.


Watertown historian Bill Jannke said the current Oak Hill Cemetery was opened in 1865. "The first Oak Hill Cemetery was on the west side of town from 1850 to 1865," he said, noting that it was only one or two acres and located in a flood plain. "Christoph Schroeder offered the land from his farm where the current ' is located. Traditionally cemetery cemeteries were placed on hillsides to avoid worry about flooding." He said St. Bernard's Cemetery is the city's oldest, dating back to 1845, but it was not the first. "The first was Watertown Cemetery where the Luther Prep playing field is located. It opened in 1840 and was condemned in 1947," he said.