Family Trails: Written in Stone

The Cedar Street Cemetery dates to the early 1800s. (Photo by M. Turton)

By Valerie LaRobardier

The Putnam County Cemetery Committee, organized 21 years ago to restore and preserve the county’s historic graveyards, has reorganized into a nonprofit corporation that allows it to accept tax-deductible donations. I have done research in many states, and the only similar organization I have ever come across is the Maine Old Cemetery Association. Dutchess County doesn’t have one. I’d love to organize one, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Maybe it’s a little dorky, but most genealogists love cemeteries and gravestones. They’re like a magnetic field. I have a hard time passing one without peeking when on vacation, even though I know there’s no chance my ancestors are there.

Each of Putnam’s six towns has a representative on the committee, now called the Society for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries. It met on May 24 at Philipstown Town Hall to select its initial board of directors, which includes co-founders and local historians Dr. Larry Maxwell of Patterson and Allan Warnecke of Carmel. All six towns are well represented with the inclusion of Mike Leonard, Mike Troy, Elaine Otto, Catherine Wargas, Priscilla Keresey and Carol Bailey.

The Cedar Street Cemetery dates to the early 1800s. (File photo by Michael Turton)

The group meets every other month in one of the towns on a rotating basis. See putnamgraveyards.com, which Keresey has taken on the challenge of updating and enhancing. When complete it will be a tremendous resource for genealogists. Some cemeteries already have genealogical and biographical information, maps and photos included. This is very exciting! The Society is looking for members and volunteers who love local history to get involved.

The society organizes cleanups, advises towns on cemetery maintenance and secures matching funds to save cemeteries that are no longer being maintained. After two decades of work, many of the county’s cemeteries are now in the “best shape they have ever been,” says Warnecke.

Eagle Scout projects get cemeteries back in shape, but ongoing maintenance can be a challenge. Identifying and restoring cemeteries that have been neglected, sometimes even to the point of not being recognized as cemeteries, was a goal from the beginning. Getting a local government to recognize a historic cemetery can be difficult; state laws governing abandoned cemeteries are not easy to navigate.

(There have been a few successes. In 2016, at the urging of Leonard, who is a member of the Town Board, Philipstown budgeted $15,000 and Putnam County contributed $2,300 for maintenance, mapping, repairs, improved signage and tree removal at the Mountain Avenue Cemetery in Cold Spring and the Cedar Street Cemetery in Nelsonville.)

Gilead Cemetery in Carmel (Photo by Priscilla Keresey)

Genealogists should refer whenever possible to the 18 cemetery collections listed in the Handbook for Putnam County History and Genealogy, available from the County Historian (putnamcountyny.com/historian). Ancestry.com also has in its collection William P. Horton’s Cemetery Inscriptions of Putnam County, N.Y. (From the search menu, choose “card catalog” and enter the title.)

A word of caution, however: I have the book and have spot-checked names that do not turn up in the online search results. To make a successful search you will need to use the browse function to go through the book and check each cemetery. Many of the cemeteries have an index at the front of their chapter. Those that do not have the inscriptions listed alphabetically, speeding the search process along.

The Dutchess County Genealogical Society has also published information about selected cemeteries. If your library does not have our quarterly publication, The Dutchess, you can order back issues at dcgs-gen.org.

The Winter 1989 issue has transcriptions for 11 cemeteries in Putnam (which split from Dutchess in 1812), the Summer 1992 issue has corrections and additions to Barbara S. Buys’ Old Graveyards of Putnam County, New York, published in 1975 (often referred to as simply “Buys”), and Volume 1 issues 2 and 3 contain an index to the 1972 book by the Rev. Floyd Fisher, They All Rest Together: Burial Sites of Early Settlers of Southern Dutchess and Putnam Counties.

LaRobardier is a professional genealogist and president of the Dutchess County Genealogical Society. Every other month, she will discuss strategy and resources for research in Dutchess and Putnam counties and answer queries from readers. She can be reached at genealogy@highlandscurrent.com. Click here for more of her columns.

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