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Center

Cemetery

by David Driessens

 

 

 

             Much of Branford’s history and tradition comes to light in its several old cemeteries. Three of them span the centuries from the town’s beginnings. Besides Center Cemetery, there are Mill Plain and Damascus Cemeteries.

            For a history buff, there is probably no more fascinating place to pursue a search, than an ancient cemetery.. It is, at once, a step into the past, and an educational experience; a chronological anthology of historical information, and an appreciation of the stone mason’s art.

            In Branford, the original burying ground was adjacent to the first log meetinghouse. When a new meeting house was built on the Green in 1701, the same year which saw the founding of the small “collegiate school” destined to become Yale, the old house was taken down. Its footprint has been free of tombstones ever since, save for an ancient millstone, given by F. Sherwood and Mary (Hitchcock) Boyd, as a memorial to those first settlers. Surrounding the memorial is more than three centuries of the history of the town and it’s a people. The place is Center Cemetery.

            Far from being a melancholy or depressing way to spend an hour or so, a walk through any old burying ground is a rich and fascinating encounter with the history of the place. In the case of Center Cemetery, one cannot help but absorb the history of three and a half centuries of which we are all part.

            The fore section of the cemetery contains the oldest stones and some of the most unique and artistic as well. Though most of the very early stones have fallen victims to the ravages of time and weather, one has been preserved from 1694, marking the resting place of William Rosewell, Esq. Some  epitaphs are caustic or loving remembrances and one or two are even cryptic messages to those who remain.

            Ebenezer Linsley’s stone of 1787 reads: Behold and see as you pass by as now so once was I / as I am now so you shall be / prepare to die and follow me.

            But here are the loving words inscribed on the Rev. Samuel Russell’s stone: In slumber bound, fast by his side / the tender part, his pious bride reclines her head. Seven of the towns ministers rest there, along with their wives and most of their children. The Rev. Samuel Russell, the settlement’s third minister of 1687-1731 lies beneath a table stone with his wife Abigail…”his virtuous consort”.

            Here too, are the stones of Nathaniel and Thankful Harrison whose house is now the home of our historical society. Nathaniel died in 1760…on his birthday.

            Many of the graves are those of veterans of the War of Independence including seven at Mill Plain, nine at Damascus and 19 in Center Cemetery. Buried at Center Cemetery are John Baldwin, Gideon Goodrich and Aaron Bradley who were killed during the British invasion of New Haven in July of 1779.

            George Baldwin is here, he was the town blacksmith whose forge was on a sandy hillock about where Trinity Church now stands. There is the handsomely carved stone of Rosewell Saltonstall, grandson of Governor Gurdon Saltonstall, who lived out his life in a great mansion on the shore of the lake named for his grandfather.

            The stone of Martha Yates says that she died of smallpox at age 33 in the year 1777. The small stones alongside are those of her two daughters: Polly who died nine months before her mother, and Sally, eleven months old, who died five days after her mother; poignant and loving reminders.

            In the front row of stones facing Montowese Street is the grave of the widow, Anna Barker, and a most unusual story. She was Anna Williams, daughter of the Rev. Warham Williams, the first minister of the Northford Church. She married the minister of the Branford church, the Rev.Jason Atwater in 1784. He succumbed to tuberculosis ten years later, and the widow Atwater married his successor, the Rev. Lynde Huntington who, unhappily succumbed to the same malady…ten years later. In the congregation was a recent graduate of Yale who was to be ordained to the ministry, and was called to a church in Middleboro, Mass. Before leaving Branford, Rev. Joseph Barker married the widow Huntington. The Rev. Mr. Barker went to his reward some ten years later, and his widow returned to Branford where she died in 1832 at age 73. Her tombstone is unusual in that it lists, in order, her three husbands. “Anna Barker, widow of Rev. Jason Atwater, Rev. Lynde Huntington, Rev. Joseph Barker.”

            But, no walk at Center Cemetery would be complete without a stop at the grave of the last Indian to live in Branford. He was Asa, called the “faithful Indian,” whose stone is some twenty-five paces left of the flag pole in the cemetery. He died in 1885 at age 87.

            Finally we come to the stone of Lt. Aaron Steven Lanfare who distinguished himself during the Civil War, and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. During the War Between the States, he captured the battle flag of Florida’s 11th Regiment, a feat of uncommon valor and bravery. He was born in Branford in 1824 and died, at sea, in 1875, His stone, seen from Montowese Street, is close by the wall at Rice Terrance.

            There are dozens of names whose families are still residents of Branford after 350 years including Rose, Harrison, Ward and Page; Linsley, Russell, Baldwin and Pond. There are Barkers, Frisbies, Bartholomews and Tylers. Who does not know of Blackstone, Hoadley, Plant and Palmer, all of whom gave the town its character and flavor, in their time? These are the people who populated our town in the days long past. All left their mark upon our town, and its mark which makes our town special.

            The legacy of small town New England has been handed down to us by those hardy men and women. As we move into the next century, let us remember our roots…from wherever we have come, and pass that legacy to our children, and to theirs. And if you should stroll through one of the quiet, peaceful graveyards of Branford, perhaps you might hear the lines of this verse whispered softly on the air:

Walk softly, ye who wander here.

Tread lightly as you go.

Hear the echoes of the past

Across the silent years.

This rolling meadow,  grassy plain.

Besides the tidal river.

This place wherein our Fathers sleep,

Beyond the restless day.

 

 

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