HOPKINTON – The gathering crowd tightened in around the newly erected structure in Pine Grove Cemetery. The impeccably built concrete tomb contained two sections, separated by double iron doors. The first room, measuring 10 feet by 12 feet with a seven and a half foot high ceiling, and walls fourteen inches thick, was to serve as a receiving vault. The second section, a vestibule ante-room measuring 10 feet by 10 feet with a 10-foot high ornamental steel ceiling containing a cornice and centerpiece would be used for holding funerals during inclement weather.
The roof of the tomb was covered with galvanized steel tiling and the capstone above the glass-paneled front door told the whole story, in a beautifully cut inscription. “Barber Memorial Tomb, presented to Pine Grove Cemetery, August 3, 1897 by Edward Barber in commemoration of his 80th birthday.” On that day at 3:00 p.m., a Tuesday afternoon, Barber celebrated his birth by holding this momentous event at the cemetery and giving a gift, instead of receiving one.
President of the cemetery association, George Hopkins Olney, stepped forward first to introduce Reverend J.S. Russell of the Hope Valley Baptist Church. Russell thanked Barber for the gift before calling him out of the crowd to say a few words. Barber explained that his deep regard for the cemetery began in 1860, when he, as the new president of the cemetery association, took it upon himself to improve the appearance of the land there and begin constructing the stone walls that run along the north and west sides of the burial ground. Five years later, he again spent his own money to erect a monument in the cemetery and continued investing in the grounds and purchasing gravestones with his personal finances simply, “because it makes me happy.” In 1872, when part of the wall needed to be rebuilt, he shouldered much of the cost.
His latest gift, Barber said, had been erected in the most solid and substantial manner, “with no pains or expense spared.” The total cost to Barber, for the vault’s construction, had been seven hundred dollars. Just before handing the vault keys to Olney, Barber told the crowd, “Presenting this to the association gives me great happiness.”
The vault was admired by the grateful villagers before everyone moved on to Barber’s Hall where an elaborate celebration awaited. A bright canopy of red, white and blue bunting had been erected on the north side of the hall, and flowers sprang up from every direction. On the floor, a heavy rug was spread and a divan and several easy chairs sat atop it, near a framed portrait of Barber.
As each guest entered the hall, they presented their ticket to one of the ushers: W.S. Nichols and C.H. Brown. Each ticket number coordinated with a place setting and, with the help of Nichols and Brown, guests found their seats among the two long tables that extended the entire length of the hall. Across the west end, a special table had been set up for the association’s officers, which included vice president Amos Gardiner Nichols.
After the nearly 130 guests had been seated, the stage curtain rose to reveal the 10-piece Hope Valley Orchestra, led by Elisha P. Perry, and a flood of melody burst forth. The tables, all meticulously decorated with flowers, were soon laden with delicious foods, catered by Henry Francis True. After all appetites had been satisfied, Olney took the floor to present a history of the Pine Grove Cemetery Association, from its beginning in 1849. Barber had served as the association’s president for nearly 33 years, retiring in 1892. At the close of the celebration, each guest was given a purple satin ribbon with the dedication on the tomb stamped upon it in gold letters.
Edward Barber had been the ninth child of the thirteen born to Edward and Phebe (Tillinhast) Barber. A native of Hopkinton, he had worked as a farmer and cooper before moving to Providence at the age of twenty-one to work as a carpenter. He returned to Hope Valley the following year and entered into a construction partnership with his brother Thomas in Barberville, which they called “T.T. & E. Barber,” manufacturing carriages and coffins.
In 1845, the two men purchased a tract of land in Centerville and built a cotton mill, five dwelling houses and a store. Fourteen years later, after financial problems had caused their venture to be unsuccessful, they bought more land in Locustville and began a tin and hardware business. This change of career paid off and, in 1864, they were able to construct a large new brick building to house their business, known as Barber’s Hall, the very place where Barber’s 80th birthday celebration was held. In 1870, after retiring, the brothers sold the building to C. D. Chase.
During his long life, Barber had served as a town councilman, state senator and president of the Hopkinton Savings Bank. He married Susan Card on March 14, 1843 and the couple went on to have four children, three of whom died in infancy and the last living only to the age of seven. In the winter of 1898, in relatively good health, Susan was preparing a Sunday morning breakfast when she suddenly fell into an unconscious state and died 12 days later. She was laid to rest in Pine Grove Cemetery beside her children.
Edward Barber died on Feb. 6, 1905, leaving no children or grandchildren to carry on his legacy of charitable goodness. What he did leave was a beautiful little structure situated near the west corner of Pine Grove Cemetery, near the roadway that winds passed the grounds. On that day 117 years ago, just before he placed the keys in George Olney’s hands, he announced, “I hope that I will never see the day when the cemetery or the vault suffers from neglect.”
Kelly Sullivan is a freelance history and features writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.