COVENTRY — Having already spent dozens of hours over the last year clearing brush and removing fallen branches from the site, members of the local Sons Of Union Veterans Of The Civil War chapter gathered Sunday at a historical cemetery in Greene for their final cleanup of 2019.
Charged with ensuring the memory of those who fought for the Union more than 150 years ago lives on, members of Major Sullivan Ballou Camp 3 have dedicated a decade of their time to restoring the cemeteries around Kent County where Civil War soldiers are buried.
The group has spent more than a year clearing debris and overgrowth from the cemeteries at Pond Brook Farm where they met Sunday.
“The person who manages the farm reached out to us to let us know the cemeteries were severely overgrown,” recalled Ben Frail, the camp’s assistant secretary.
In one of the cemeteries, 15 people were laid to rest between 1839 and 1932, according to the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission; in the other, 60 people were buried between 1803 and 1914. Over time, weather and vegetation had taken over the sites, hiding headstones among downed trees and plant life.
“We spent the better part of a year and a half coming in here a couple hours at a time, chipping away slowly,” Frail continued, perched atop a stone wall surrounding one of the sites.
And though there’s still work to be done, the clean up efforts have certainly paid off. Trees standing near the edge of the site show freshly cut limbs where broken, dangling branches have been removed; except for some spare sticks and a thin layer of brown leaves, the ground has been cleared of the debris that had covered it.
Now that those sites has been cleaned, the next step in their restoration will be to set up the gravestones that have toppled over.
“Once the ground thaws we’ll come in and set the stones that we can set,” Frail said over the loud buzzing sound of a leaf blower. “There are a lot of them in here that we’ll have to just piece together and lay them flat on the ground.”
In addition to the cemeteries on Pond Brook Farm, the camp has also spent time over the last year renovating the cemetery behind the Coventry Town Hall, as well as a historical cemetery in Pawtucket where a member’s great, great, great grandfather is buried. And in the months ahead, the camp will evaluate the conditions of several other cemeteries they’ve been alerted of to determine whether they’d be appropriate projects.
“Typically during the winter time we’ll go and tour them to see, one, what the conditions of the stones are; two, the conditions of the surrounding area; and three, if there are Civil War veterans in there,” Frail said.
The Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society’s cemetery group does similar work to advocate for and restore the area’s historical cemeteries. So although his group prioritizes cemeteries where Civil War veterans are buried, Frail added, there are other groups that can pick up the projects that the camp can’t get to.
The camp also each Memorial Day visits some 30 Kent County cemeteries, placing an American flag at the grave site of each veteran.
Frail said he’s reached out to both the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Coventry High School and the school’s football team to pitch in with some of the projects in 2020.
“Those volunteers from the high school are greatly appreciated and a massive help,” Frail said, adding that both groups have offered to help out on some of the restorations in the spring. “Luckily and unluckily there’s plenty of work to go around in Coventry.”