Community effort refurbishes 'forgotten' cemetery

Voluntown — Staring out at rows of headstones in the Old Kinnie Cemetery, Byron Kinnie recalled what the cemetery used to look like before he and a group of volunteers rehabilitated it.

Hidden by thick briars and dense overgrowth, the gravestones were concealed under giant Norway spruce trees that extended over the cemetery, creating a canopy that allowed only small blotches of sunlight to shine through.

Kinnie, of Griswold, said he holds a deep connection to the people buried in this small patch of earth surrounded by the Pachaug State Forest off Route 165. Many of those buried here, including the former owner of the property, Samuel Kinnie, are ancestors dating back five generations.

Broad tree limbs dropped nearly a foot of pine needles over the marker stones and monuments that memorialized the lives of dozens of area residents. The thick tree trunks were anchored by a network of long crisscrossing roots that over the years uprooted the anchor stones, causing many of the mounted headstones to fall to the ground and crumble.

“It was really a forgotten place,” Kinnie, 77, said. “This was really bad.”

Local youths from the Children of the American Revolution chapter, a group of local residents and town officials completely renovated the cemetery. A rededication of the cemetery will take place at 1 p.m. Sept. 28.

About 14 area historical groups have been invited to celebrate the restoration of the cemetery, as are the Kinnie family, whose ancestors once owned the grave plot.

Iva Alexander-Arpin, organizer of the cemetery restoration project, conducted nearly two years of restoration work on the property with the help of more than a dozen youth volunteers. Each headstone was brushed and cleaned with a soap and water mixture. With the aid of the state archeologists more than 60 headstones or grave markers were recovered.

The stones were in disarray, strewn throughout the small cemetery as if they had been lifted together, shaken and dropped on the property. Some stones showed signs of vandalism, Arpin said.

Arpin, who completed a restoration project on the Thomas Kinnie Cemetery in Griswold, decided the Voluntown Kinnie cemetery was the next logical project. First Selectman Thomas H. Wilber authorized town workers to help haul away truckloads of brush and debris and provided crushed stone to help mark some of the headstones.

“This one was a catastrophe, and we all knew it,” she said. “We tried to retain the historical character of the cemetery, survey and study it, and I think we've done a good job.”

Using maps and deeds and two historical surveys, one conducted in 1935 and another in 1972, Arpin investigated the history of the cemetery's occupants. The dead were buried here between 1847 and 1905.

Many of the occupants were residents who migrated from Rhode Island to work in the Griswold area mills that once dotted the landscape.

The occupants include a Revolutionary War veteran, a 17-year-old Civil War soldier and two veterans from the War of 1812. Every member of the Dennis family, who were wealthy Voluntown landowners who all died of tuberculosis, was accounted for. Not far away was a group of fieldstones laid to mark the graves of paupers.

“We have found them all,” Kinnie said. “Everybody's marker has been accounted for and put back where it belongs.”
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