by David Flint
As Stephentown celebrates its 225th anniversary, interest is focused on the Town’s origins and its history. A lot of that history can be found in the Town’s cemeteries and burial grounds.
There are five cemeteries still in current use and maintained by legally recognized associations. They are the Garfield Cemetery on Garfield Road, the Hillside Cemetery on Firetower Road, the Stephentown Cemetery, formerly the Baptist Cemetery on Cemetery Hill Road, St. Joseph’s Cemetery on Route 43 and the East Nassau Cemetery which straddles the line between East Nassau and South Stephentown. The Stephentown Historical Society lists 74 other burial grounds and graveyards of various sizes and in various states of repair.
The Garfield Cemetery is not the oldest but is estimated by officers of its Association to be just about 200 years old. It was known simply as “the old cemetery” in 1836 when the Presbyterians rebuilt their church at its present location in Garfield (later merging with the Methodists in 1948 to form the Federated Church). In 1887 Theodore D. Platt turned the cemetery over to the Presbyterians. It was thereafter known as the Elmwood Cemetery until at some point the name was changed to Garfield Cemetery.
Prominent citizens buried in Garfield include Captain Israel Platt, indicated on his tombstone as “An officer of the Revolution who died in the City of New York of the yellow fever August 18th, 1796.”
His son, Henry Platt, buried in Garfield in 1842, served multiple terms as Town Supervisor and was also a member of the New York State Legislature. There is also Captain John Wylie who served in the Militia Battalion of Major Jonathan Niles and was Town Supervisor from 1791 to 1794. Wylie was originally interred in the Wylie Cemetery on Wyomanock Road but his grave along with others was later moved to Garfield.
Samuel Vary who died in 1807 is also buried here. An early settler of Stephentown, he held a commission in the British Army and was accused of being a Loyalist during the Revolution. He was arrested and was required to post his house and lands as bond and pledge an oath of allegiance. According to information from a descendant, Kathy Vary Becker, he subsequently rejoined the British. Kathy said, “If I were old Sam’s wife with nine children to think about, I would have had his head when he posted my house and land and then turned around and went against that bond and joined the British military with the risk of losing it all.” Yet he must have been forgiven again because he returned to Stephentown, was buried in Garfield Cemetery and his son, Samuel Vary Jr. became Town Supervisor serving from 1795-1797.
Private William Stocker is the only veteran in this cemetery from the War of 1812. There are also 18 Civil War veterans, one from the Spanish-American War and two from the Philippines Insurrection. In all, there are about 90 veterans buried in Garfield Cemetery from the Revolutionary War to the War in Iraq.
The Cemetery is the burial ground for over 500 local families. According to Garfield Cemetery Association President David Cummings, it is also the last resting place of some 25 to 30 unknown paupers whose remains were brought in from various locations around the county. The graves are unmarked and no one knows who these people were. They were buried in the back along the fence in the northwest corner of the Cemetery. For years the graves were evident from the collapsed inverted mounds but as excess soil was spread in that area it became hard to determine where exactly the graves are.
According to Association Secretary/Treasurer Elizabeth Hanlon, the Cemetery now has fewer than ten plots left to sell. The Cemetery finds itself facing financial constraints that face many aging cemeteries. The income is no longer there to properly maintain the grounds with the result that more of the burden must rest with fund-raising.
Non-religious cemeteries incorporated in New York State under the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law are regulated by the Division of Cemeteries of the NYS Department of State. The law requires that all regulated cemeteries take 10% of every sale and $35 from each burial and place it in a managed Permanent Maintenance Fund. The interest income from this invested fund may be used for current expenses but the principal must remain intact. The idea is that once there is no more property to sell, the income from the Permanent Maintenance Fund is used to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity. As it turns out, however, this income is not always sufficient. In the last audit by the Division of Cemeteries the Garfield Association was informed that unless the Association was able to properly maintain the grounds, the Cemetery would have to be turned over to the Town of Stephentown for maintenance. Hanlon said that no one wants to see that happen.
The Association has determined that they need to raise $6,000 this year to ensure that the grounds are mowed properly during the year and that weeds are kept under control. The Association is encouraging not just plot owners and relatives of persons buried here but also all residents of the area who appreciate the history that is here to donate generously to help with the upkeep of the Cemetery, preserving the history of those buried there and making everyone proud of the Cemetery’s appearance. Those interested in making a donation can contact Elizabeth Hanlon at 518-781-4829.