TOWN OF JOHNSTOWN – When Town Board member Tim Rizzo walks through the abandoned rural cemetery near the intersection of Route 67 and Route 334 he said he experiences feelings of frustration and confusion.
“We have no idea what’s even here,” Rizzo said with the sound of bitterness in his voice.
Known as the “Gross Cemetery” or sometimes as the “Boshart Cemetery,” the piece of land was used as a grave yard by a now long gone Lutheran Church in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is one of at least 16 rural cemeteries owned by the town of Johnstown, many of them in various states of disrepair.
Rizzo admits the Gross Cemetery has looked worse, with broken headstones piled in a corner the first time he visited it, but he’s still not happy with the work the town has done to clean it up.
“They were all broken and down on the ground, but how do we know somebody didn’t move them from where they’re supposed to be?,” he said. “Or even if there’s a person there, where they’ve been put now.”
He said he’s also concerned some of Johnstown’s neglected cemeteries could include veterans of the Revolutionary War or the Civil War and no one in the town government realizes it because the records have been lost and the writing on the tombstones has faded.
“Those white head stones,” he said referencing a few of the stones at the Gross Cemetery. “I don’t know if they are military vets, but those are the types of stones you see in Arlington Cemetery.”
Rizzo differs sharply in his approach to the issue of once-abandoned cemetery maintenance from the rest of the members of the Town Board and the Town Supervisor Jack Wilson.
At the Town Board’s June 21 meeting Rizzo “surprised” the board with a presentation from the Saratoga Springs-based landscape engineering firm The LA Group, the company that designed the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in the 1990s.
The LA Group has proposed a $15,000 plan to conduct a study that would establish an inventory of all of the town-owned rural cemeteries, a list, to the extent it can be determined, of whose graves they contain, and to craft a plan for what needs to be done to rehabilitate them and bring the town into compliance with Town Law 291. The study could then be used as the basis for applying for state or federal grants to get the money to do the rehabilitation work.
When Rizzo proposed a resolution to hire The LA Group, none of the other Town Board members would agree to provide the necessary “second,” causing the motion to die.
Town Board member Donald VanDeusen explained why he wouldn’t support hiring the engineering firm : “Hiring them would be no different than buying a lottery ticket.”
But the Town Board, after years of neglect and some nudging from Rizzo, has attempted to improve their inventory of rural cemeteries.
Rizzo said he became interested in the growing problem of rural abandoned cemeteries about three years ago when he was researching his own family genealogy, and he realized he had relatives buried in abandoned rural cemeteries outside of Fulton County that were not being maintained properly by the towns that now own them.
He said he toured some of the town-owned cemeteries and saw many grave stones tipped over, and saw that some were overgrown with weeds, and he determined the town of Johnstown hadn’t been living up to its obligations to its rural cemeteries and started fighting for town funding to address the problem about two years ago.
`”I brought it to the board when we did budget season. I asked to put money in it, they told me no. I argued it a second year, they told me no,” he said. “Finally [for the 2021 budget], when I said the tombstones were piled in a corner, and people ought to go out and look, apparently somebody went and looked … and then they said we have to put money in the budget for cemetery restoration.”
Last October Wilson told the board he had decided to the make the Gross Cemetery the site of the town’s “Pilot Cemetery Restoration Program.”
Prior to fall 2020, the Gross Cemetery was found to have 14 identifiable family plots, with approximately 42 existing monuments, most of them marble, with 9 of the monuments upright without need of correction, seven needing to be reset or fortified and 22 requiring “varying degrees of significant restoration,” according to a report provided to the Town Board by Pierre Alric, owner of the Pickett Memorial Company in Gloversville, a company that carves and designs modern tombstones.
Alric included a price quote of about $3,100 to do restoration work at the Gross Cemetery and a couple of the town’s smaller abandoned cemeteries.
“I don’t think that’s too bad,” Wilson told the board concerning the price, during the board’s Oct. 27 workshop meeting.
The Town Board then hired Alric to do restoration work at the Gross Cemetery, but Wilson at the board’s June 21 meeting told the board the town never agreed to a formal written contract for the restoration work.
On Friday, Johnstown town bookkeeper Clyde Nellis said the town owes Alric about $3,100 for the work he did at the cemetery, but it hasn’t paid him yet.
Rizzo has accused Wilson of violating the town’s procurement policy to hire Alric, and that the work being done at the cemetery doesn’t meet the requirements of New York state’s Town Law 291, which mandates the Town Board’s responsibilities to maintain the old cemeteries.
“The town doesn’t even know, exactly, what they’re responsible for,” Rizzo said. “The board is solely responsible for making sure the cemeteries are maintained. It’s written in the law, but who’s making sure we’re maintaining them? If we were maintaining them, we would know which cemeteries we are responsible for. This board today, we do not know which ones we’re responsible for, and which ones we need to do something to, because the law also states that we need to have fencing around them to delineate them.”
The potential cost of building those fences may be a part of the friction between Rizzo and the rest of his board. Wilson in October said he was concerned about potential “$100,000” expenses if the town were forced into major restoration work at its cemeteries.
Rizzo has said he doesn’t believe it will cost that much, but also said he fears being held accountable as a Town Board member for not living up to the state’s mandates for abandoned cemeteries.
Wilson has said he believes the town does need to mow the cemeteries more often, and he’s hired someone to do that work.
The status of whether Alric will be paid and when, and whether he’ll be able to do more work at the town’s other cemeteries is in limbo after Rizzo complained Wilson and the rest of the board did not follow the town’s procurement rules that require competitive bidding for projects costing more than $5,000. Town Attorney Leah Everhart has advised the board it cannot hire out the work of cleaning-up the cemeteries “piecemeal” to a vendor in increments that ultimately add up to more than $5,000.
The matter remains in dispute, and none of the Town Board members returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Rizzo said he thinks the town is passing up an opportunity to create an online inventory of its rural cemeteries, giving people the opportunity to find the lost graves of their ancestors.
“Nobody is looking at the big picture, first work on your maintenance, get everything together,” he said. “Then we could do a restoration process with an engineer, working with an engineer, and we can take our time, put a three-year plan together. We can do four cemeteries a year, and bid it out, make sure it’s done right and get our Highway Department involved. Not just go out and throw stones up in the year and say ‘it looks great’ and walk away.”
Fulton County Historian Samantha Hall-Saladino, who is also the executive director of the Fulton County Historical Society and its museum, said no complete inventory of the rural cemeteries in Fulton County exists, but the best list she is aware of can be found at fulton.nygenweb.net. She said many towns in upstate New York have a fairly large number of abandoned rural cemeteries, some of them just small family graveyards that were attached to farms that have never been removed, and other larger cemeteries.
“I assume there are cemeteries that we don’t know about, hiding around on people’s property,” she said.
Hall-Saladino said she agrees with the premise that abandoned rural graveyards could be a relatively untapped generator of tourism.
“People do love old cemeteries,” she said. “They are great for genealogists, and a lot of times people doing that kind of research are looking for the final resting place of their ancestors. So, there is certainly, I would say, an audience for this kind of tourism.”
Rizzo said he plans to continue to fight for a comprehensive survey of the town’s cemeteries, and he will bring the issue back up to the board at future meetings.