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Preston Historical Society seeks volunteers to uncover, rediscover Guiles-Safford Cemetery

Preston — Hundreds of cars and trucks whiz past the Guiles-Safford Cemeteries on Route 165 next to Strawberry Park campground and see only overgrown brush and weeds at this time of year.

Gravestones from the two families, some dating back to the 1700s, are partially or wholly hidden by tangled brambles that are claiming the grounds where early residents and military servicemen are laid to rest.

Members of the Preston Historical Society and a new organization, Rediscovering History Inc., hope to enlist an army of volunteers to battle the weeds and bushes this weekend to shed some light on the town-owned cemetery.

The groups are seeking volunteers for a cleanup from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the cemeteries at 547 Route 165. Volunteers are asked to wear appropriate clothing, work gloves and bring tools they are comfortable using. Youths will not be allowed to operate power tools. All participants will be asked to sign a waiver with the town.

Limited parking is available at the front of the cemetery. Some may park at the old town library on nearby Route 164 and carpool to the site, Preston Historical Society President Bridget Park said. Beverages and lunch will be provided.

“Across the state, there are a lot of cemeteries owned by towns, and funding has just dropped to take care of them,” Park said. “It’s something near and dear to my heart. That’s how I found out a lot about my ancestors through genealogy work.”

Michael Carroll, founder and president of Rediscovering History Inc., based in Mansfield, approached the Preston Historical Society about the Guiles-Safford Cemetery and the Killam Cemetery, at 49 Rose Hill Road, to propose a cleanup. Carroll said the organization started work cleaning forgotten cemeteries last October and became a registered nonprofit this spring.

Carroll said only handwork will be done around the gravestones to avoid damage. Stones will be repaired and cleaned using materials approved for use at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Our goal is to bring the cemeteries back out of the darkness of overgrowth into the light,” Carroll said. “That’s why we say, ‘rediscovering history one stone at a time.’ By preserving this cemetery and standing those stones back up, we are able to tell those people, ‘Yes you exist, we’re standing you back up.’”

The Historical Society had cleared the front, Safford family portion of the cemeteries several years ago, so the brush there is about waist deep. Overgrowth in the rear, Guiles family section is over 6 feet tall.

“We come into these and say, ‘Man, this is so much work here,’” Carroll said. “And then four to five or seven hours later, we say, ‘Wow, we did that?’”

A second cleanup date will be scheduled if necessary, he said.

Some stones in the Safford section are legible, aided by the Historical Society's cleaning several years ago, Carroll said.

“In Memory of Mary Safford,” one stone reads, “relict of John Safford, who died Aug. 11th, 1817.” A similar style stone for a John Safford, who died April 8, 1815, at age 87, is adjacent.

According to the Preston Historical Society’s 1971 book, “Preston in Review,” the earliest burial in the Safford Cemetery was Gideon Safford in 1733. When the book was written, 17 inscriptions were legible, “and a large number of field stones" were used as markers.

The Guiles Cemetery, separated by a stone wall now obscured, was said to have only seven legible stones in 1971, and the oldest burial was in 1854.

Carroll said cemetery researchers rely on the Charles Hale collection of gravestone inscriptions and cemetery locations. From 1933-35, Hale visited old cemeteries and talked with elderly residents to find burial grounds. His collection is on file at the Connecticut State Library.

Carroll said his group has discovered some cemeteries not in Hale’s records.

The Preston Board of Selectmen on July 8 approved the Guiles-Safford cleanup, since town clearly owns the cemetery. But the board held off on work at the Killam Cemetery, which might be owned by the state.

Carroll said the Killam Cemetery is on state-owned open space land. He made diagrams, measured apparent boundaries, took photos and presented the information to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and to the state Historic Preservation Office.

His group now is awaiting paperwork and permission to do a cleanup.

“That’s really sad," Carroll said of the wait, "because we’re here to preserve our history not desecrate it."

c.bessette@thedaycom

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