2017-07-28 / Front Page

City steps in to maintain cemetery

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Sharon Ward spent more than 20 years tending to the acre of graves at Brown’s Hill Cemetery in South Portland, a thankless, labor-intensive task that would take her more than a week at a time to complete. It was something she did because, as a member of the First Methodist Church next door, it was simply the right thing to do, and nobody else was willing to do it.

But now, at 70, the physical task is beyond her, and with the church disbanded and no financial support from its umbrella organization, the work went undone this past year. And although former City Manager Jim Gailey publicly acknowledged in 2013 the city’s legal obligation to maintain at least the veterans’ graves at Brown’s Hill, not one blade of grass had ever been cut by public crews.On Friday, July 21, with the grass as high as three feet in some areas, Ward could only stand and shake her head. Here, she weeded away the brush tangled around an old Grand Army of the Republic marker, there, she picked at the sod, pulling it away from where it had grown to nearly overrun and reclaim a flat headstone marker.

“It just got to be too much for me,” she said. “I have such a connection to this site. I feel bad to see it like this. It makes me sick to my stomach every time I drive by, and yet, what can I do?”

Ward had come out to the old graveyard in response to an article in last week’s Sentry that documented the frustrations of neighbors and others who had driven by the site, located at the corner of Church Street and Broadway, near Cash Corner, with its overgrown status.

The day after Ward’s visit, the cemetery, with graves dating from at last 1810 up to 1986, with soldier remains from every American conflict between the War of 1812 and World War II, was once again looking neat and trim. City Manager Scott Morelli had taken action and, with city workers tied up, Parks Director Kevin Adams had hired a private crew to rein in the overgrowth.

The city will continue to look after the cemetery for the rest of the season, at least, Morelli said, while it tries to figure out who, if anyone, owns the property.

“The city is doing a title search as our research did not turn up a conclusive owner to Brown’s Cemetery,” Morelli wrote in a July 21 email to the Sentry. “This will either lead us to an owner we can contact and work with to perform necessary maintenance, or show that there is no owner and it has been abandoned.

“In the interim, Parks Director Kevin Adams has hired a contractor to come in and mow the grass. This will begin by week’s end. After that, the city will perform maintenance through Sept. 30 unless we track down the owner prior to that.”

For Ward, that’s a welcome relief, but the long-term status of the cemetery remains a looming question mark.

Members of the Methodist congregation had helped Ward maintain the property for years, but by the time the church disbanded in 2013, it was down to eight members, with Ward the youngest of the lot. After the church building next to the cemetery sold to Union Lodge No. 3 of the International Order of Odd Fellows, Ward continued to manage maintenance, using money given by the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, located in Lawrence, Massachusetts. With those funds, she hired a Cape Elizabeth contractor to do the work and brought in a local Boy Scout troop to clear and chip additional brush.

But then the financial spigot shut tight.

“Last year, in September, they said no more until things get set up,” Ward said. “Honestly, I’m a little p.o.’d at the conference.”

According to Ward, church leaders had declined to foot the bill and for ongoing maintenance. Instead, it was willing to make a one-time donation to any group willing to set up a five-member board of trustees that would accept maintenance obligations in perpetuity.

Ward hasn’t been able to recruit willing members for such a group, and sent three emails to Bernard Campbell, president of the board of trustees for the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

On Friday, Campbell said the church is indeed willing to make a one-time endowment to help foster creation of a cemetery board for Brown’s Hill. However, the church is not in a position to fund ongoing maintenance, because it does not own the site. It’s only paid the bills this long, he said, out of a moral obligation to do right by the families of those interred at Brown’s Hill.

“We have paid lawyers to check into that and we do not own it,” Campbell said. “What our investigation found is that apparently at some point in the far past there was a separate board of trustees on the cemetery that existed, because it received title to at least a portion of the property, but perhaps over time, that board went out of existence, failed to appoint successors, etc., and there is no entity that is in existence right now that has any kind of fiduciary obligation to maintain the cemetery.”

Campbell said he could not share that documentation, because he did not have electronic copies, and because “some of that may be embedded in confidential communications between our lawyers and the church.”

A search of the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds database shows that on December 26, 1879, the heirs of Samuel Haskell, including George A. Haskell, Thomas B. Haskell, Sarah. A Small, Ellen F. Barrell, Emily S. Whitney, and Adelin S. Haskell, sold the lot at the corner of Church Street and Broadway, then known as Brown Street in that section, to the town of Cape Elizabeth, for $200 – a sum equal to more than $5,000 in 2017 dollars. A decade earlier, Haskell had sold the lot where the church, built later that year, now stands.

At that time, South Portland and what is now known as Cape Elizabeth was one municipality, the split not coming until 1895.

However, the deed is only for 15,930 square feet, or about 0.37 acres. South Portland’s online accessing database measures Brown’s Hill Cemetery at 0.92 acres, about 40,075 square feet. The 1879 deed traces the lot conveyed for 81 feet along Brown Street from the corner of Church Street, where it then turns to run “by the easterly line of said cemetery 176 feet to the Brown’s Hill Church lot” – an indication that the lot was not part of the cemetery, which was pre-existing and possible under separate ownership.

A Work’s Progress Administration map of the cemetery, created sometime between 1935 and 1939, refers to this same portion of the cemetery as “Sec-4” of four sections, while a list of some of the grave sites maintained on the South Portland Historical Society website indicates the section has, in general, more recent graves than the adjacent Sections 2 and 3. However, some of the graves listed pre-date 1879, which the deed says, “The town of Cape Elizabeth or their assigns are to build and forever maintain a good substantial fence on said lot of land on church and Brown Streets,” possibly indicating its intended use as part of a cemetery expansion.

A second deed from Jan. 3, 1882, transfers for $1 the same section sold in 1879 from the town to the Trustees of Brown’s Hill Cemetery. The names of the trustees on the handwritten deed are hard to make out, but they appear to be Alonzo C. Chaplin, Henry Nutter (possibly Nutten), and Charles P. Cash. The deed is signed by the three Cape Elizabeth selectmen at the time, Thomas B. Haskell, Stephen Scamman, and Nathaniel Dyer, and the document notes the transfer was agreed to by voters at the annual town meeting of March 14, 1880, almost two years earlier.

The only other document found in the registry of deeds database referring to the Brown’s Hill Cemetery Trustees is from May 29, 1882, in which the trustees sell a burial plot to Andrew M. Whitten, for $10. The trustees at that time are again Chaplin, Nutter and Cash.

An 1871 deed, as well as several others, refers to Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Brown’s Hill, indicating, as Campbell claims, that the church and the cemetery were run by two distinct groups. However, there appears to have been some crossover as Henry Nutter is listed in 1871 as a church trustee, alongside Walter Skillin, Jesse Dyer, and Eben J. Nutter.

Regardless of whatever happened to the cemetery trustees group, Campbell said the United Methodist Church is willing to help get a new board off the ground. So, far, however, it has been unable to find any takers. The historical society rejected an endowment offer. Executive Director Kathryn DiPhilippo said the donation – Campbell won’t say how much the church is offering, was not enough to sustain the project without ongoing cemetery maintenance soon becoming a routine part, and possible drain on, the society’s regular fundraising activities. The Odd Fellows did pay a $1,500 cemetery maintenance bill as part of its July 2014 closing on the former church building, but the organization’s officers say that was as far as they were willing to go, their funding dedicated to building renovations, member need, and other charitable works, while their manpower is limited. Ward has not been able to find enough members to form a new board of trustees and Campbell said city hall rejected during the Gailey administration an endowment offer similar to the one made to the historical society.

In 2013, Gailey wrote to the Sentry saying, “By state statute, the city is responsible for veteran graves. But it would not be in the city’s best interest to take over the annual maintenance of the entire cemetery, a cemetery that is full, with no revenue or endowment to offset the city’s annual costs.”

Still, Campbell said the Methodist Church wants to help get somebody started off on solid footing, despite a lack of legal obligation.

“The New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is obviously founded on Christian principals and we are aware of the interrelated history of the adjacent church and their attachment to and dedication to the cemetery that was next door,” he said. “You can assume that if someone came forward, the United Methodist Church would continue its posture of Christian reach out of what we believe to be the right thing to do. We share the community’s desire to have someone or some entity maintain the cemetery for the dignity of all the people who are buried there.”

On Tuesday, Morelli said that while law firm Jenson Baird Gardner & Henry complete a title search on the property to determine actual ownership, he will reach out to Campbell, Ward, and a few others who have come forward with offers of help since last week’s Sentry article.

“I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to have closure on this, whether we, as a city, end up maintaining it or we are able to identify and owner and work with them to make sure they are maintaining it, or come to some other arrangement.”

Brown’s Hill is not the only cemetery on Morelli’s radar. Recently, a representative from another site in town came forward, he said, to say its board of trustees is “dying out” and may be in need of municipal aid in the future, as new blood cannot be found.

“I think you’re going to find this is not just about Brown’s Hill, this is probably going to be a larger issue that may require city council attention in the future,” Morelli said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com

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