It is the story of honoring Civil War heroes, who were brought back from the battleground and needed a place to rest. It’s the story of many individual family plots scattered here and there, who unearthed their loved ones remains and moved them to the Rural Cemetery for a final resting place. It is also the story of many African-Americans, some of whom were slaves or farmhands, who were left buried in unmarked graves, but were given entrance to the Rural Cemetery in 1867. At first the plots were segregated, but over time blacks became integrated into the cemetery.
It is also the story of the creation of public and private cemeteries -- not only in New Paltz but throughout various states in the nation during the middle part of the 19th century. It was a time when population and immigration were on the rise, and the trend towards an organized burial ground slowly eclipsed the backyard or family farm burials.
In fact, according to their website www.newpaltzcemetery.org, when the Rural Cemetery was originally chartered on Feb. 18, 1861, the founders “recognized the tradition of burial in small family cemeteries or adjacent to houses of worship was fading. In addition, the War Between the States was underway, causing a staggering loss of lives, requiring more burial space.”
The original entrance to the cemetery is still there, hidden behind the residential home and used as a storage shed. A photograph of the original entrance was discovered by Carol Johnson, of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at Elting Memorial Library, when the Sprague family allowed her to scan various archival family photo albums.
“What a treasure,” she said, looking at the picture that shows a young man leaving the cemetery in deep snow through the gabled entrance.
Johnson and others have been hard at work compiling all kinds of historic information on the cemetery -- from its inception through the present day -- and will be offering historic tours of the cemetery on July 4.
The cemetery board is putting together a re-dedication ceremony, which will include Rev. Howard Major, of the Reformed Church of New Paltz and a re-reading of the original dedication speech.
The original opening ceremony on June 27, 1861 included an opening from Rev. Mr. Jansen, of Gardiner, and remarks by both Rev. Jansen and Rev. Mr. Comfort, of New Hurley, as well as statements by Edmund Eltinge, the cemetery secretary. The large crowd who’d gathered there sang several hymns to witness and participate in “the solemn services of” the cemetery’s dedication.
One of the hymns sung by a choir at the dedication included these timeless versus:
“Here shall they sleep -- the young, the old, the brave of mien, the fair of form; and childhood with its locks of gold, shall find a covert from the storm.
“And Love shall chisel, on the tomb, the epitaph of buried friend; and plant sweet flowers to blush and bloom, where willow branches wave and bend.
“God of the living, and the dead! Thine eye is sleepless! And thy love, will hear the prayer by mortal said, will send us blessings from above!
“And while we consecrate the ground, oh, may our souls by winged with prayer, and altars in our hearts be found – with Faith and Hope attendant there.”
After the dedication ceremony 66 “plats” were immediately sold, totaling $2,267.75.
Johnson points to the original map of the cemetery, which had various pathways named “Lily Avenue,” “Rose Avenue” and “Carnation Avenue.”
“There were many family burial grounds throughout New Paltz,” said Johnson, referring to some of the more noticeable ones today like the Huguenot Street Elting Family burial ground and the Freer family burial ground, located just past the corner of Mountain Rest Road and Butterville Road, as well as the Quaker Cemetery.
“But if you read through the history, many of these families decided to unearth their ancestors and have them laid to rest at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery -- except for their buried slaves or African-American workers. There are at least four African-American burial grounds that we have located,” she said.
That includes not only the officially dedicated African-American burial ground off of Huguenot Street, but also one that existed to the east of Plains Road -- as noted in a survey by Peter and Derek Elting, who were splitting their large property in 1836 that included the land from Bob Lasher’s old home on Plains Road all the way to Route 32 South where Robins Warehouse used to be.
“Look closely,” said Johnson, pointing to an area of the survey that shows a small rectangular box and underneath it the words “Negro Burial Ground.”
As she and others continue to try and locate these various African-American burial sites, in the large file of the Historic Huguenot collection, staff and volunteers have assembled an editorial from the New Paltz Independent written on April 22, 1864.
“As some of our readers manifest considerable interest in the African race, would it not be a good idea to give them a suitable burial place,” the editorial read. “Their present yard, north of this village, on Miss Mary Dubois’ Farm, is without a fence about it, and the rough stones that mark the last resting place of those who have attended you in your infancy are broken down by the cattle …
“Cannot a portion of the grounds of the rural cemetery be set apart for the colored race?”
That call must have gone answered and accepted because the history books of who was interred at the Rural Cemetery and where their plots are located included several African-American families, who purchased a plot or several plots beginning in 1867.
“At first they were segregated towards the very back of the property,” explained Johnson, pointing to “Border Avenue,” but as time went on, the cemetery was desegregated.
Because of the many burials at the Rural Cemetery of soldiers from the New Paltz area, who fought and died during the Civil War, the large Soldiers Monument that is the centerpiece of the cemetery to this day was erected in 1870.
An article in the New Paltz Independent explains that the monument was made of “Quincy Granite,” and that the “workmanship and beauty of design, reflects great credit” to the firm hired from Poughkeepsie to design and build the monument, as well as to the dozens of soldiers whose names were etched into the granite.
One of these soldiers was New Paltz’s Capt. Johannes LeFevre, who was shot during one of the most infamous and decisive battles of the Union and Confederate armies, known as the Battle of Cedar Creek, before sunrise on Wednesday Oct. 19, 1864.
According to an account by Jane LeFevre, the captain “fell cheering on his men, tucker saw him fire his pistol five times, and says he must surely have been taken prisoner, had not his wound prevented him his removal.”
As word reached the family, Johannes’ father made his way south, staying with his son for several days, comforted by both Johanne’s and the attending physician that he was on his way to recovery. Shortly after his father left to return north for a “supervisor’s” meeting, his son’s health took a turn for the worst and he died, in great pain, from gangrene.
His body was retrieved from Virginia by family members, friends and fellow soldiers and brought to the New Paltz Rural Cemetery where a full military burial was given. His sister gives a loving, painful account of the services, that last volley fired over his grave, but admits how much she and her family would have “given to have had, one familiar face, one loved friend stand by his death bed to soothe him in his dying hours.”
The hymn “Bring Them Home Tenderly” was sung at the burial service.
That is one story of many, many soldiers up to recent years, which came to a beautiful culmination in November of 2008, when through the 20-year long efforts of World War II veteran Joe Egan and other veterans -- along with the assistance of County Legislator Susan Zimet (D-New Paltz) and Terry Breitenstein, director of Ulster County’s Veteran Services Agency -- dedicated a portion of the Rural Cemetery as a “Veteran’s Cemetery,” providing approximately 800 plots for veterans of war and their kin that would be provided free of charge by the county.
There are articles about various tombstones people chose for their burial, including one in 1976 which was a mill stone used for grinding grain, becoming the tombstone for George Langwick, of New Paltz, along with his brother Benny, who both owned a local mill and feed business.
“There is such a rich history here,” noted Johnson, who not only has helped to weave the archives of the Rural Cemetery itself, but also the other cemeteries that are scattered throughout the town -- some known and visible, others over-grown or undetected, unmarked.
To learn more about the upcoming re-dedication ceremony or New Paltz Rural Cemetery, log onto www.newpaltzcemetery.org or call Johnson at 255-5030.