GRAVE RESPONSIBILITY: Johnston's Historic Cemetery No. 7 may be a model for volunteer maintenance

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The faces of many tombstones in Cemetery No. 7 are rough, the inscriptions noticeably hand-carved. They’re made of concrete rather than marble or granite.

“Many of these people were poor, and likely worked in the nearby mills,” said Stephen Merolla, vice-president of the Johnston Historical Society. “Just down the street stood a big stone mill called the Center Mill; later called the Centerdale Mill. It was built in 1812 as a cotton mill and burned down in 1972.”

Johnston Historical Cemetery No. 7, near the intersection of George Waterman Road and Route 44, is one of the town’s largest old burial grounds.

Merolla, who also serves as head of the Historical Society’s cemetery committee, has studied Johnston’s nearly 100 historic burial grounds.

He and a small band of volunteers are on a mission to pay respect to the town’s forbearers by maintaining Johnston’s historic cemeteries.

“This is one of the largest cemeteries in town, often called the Cedar Lot,” Merolla explained.

He and his fellow history loving volunteers have spent countless hours with buzzing weed cutters, lawnmowers and gloved hands, in an effort to save the cemetery from choking weedy overgrowth.

“Why is it called the Cedar Lot?” Merolla asked. “We’re not sure. The area is surrounded by lots of pine trees. We’ve theorized that may be the reason.”

Some of the family plots in Cemetery No. 7 have been disinterred, the caskets removed and placed elsewhere.

Like most historical cemeteries, several headstones have cracked or toppled.

“About 95 percent of the old cemeteries in town are small family lots,” Merolla said. “This, however, was a community cemetery. It seems it came into use during the mid-1850s.”

The cemetery’s life follows the rise and decline of the nearby mill, which eventually evolved into a chemical company called Metro Atlantic, around the time of World War II.

A North Providence senior high-rise complex now stands in the mill’s fading footprint, which was eventually designated a superfund site.

“Many of the people buried here come from the North Providence side,” Merolla said. “A lot of the names are not the regular Johnston family names.”

The Greystone Mill also operated just a few blocks east.

Merolla has traced the cemetery land back to a former owner named Dennis Stollard.

“He had land fronting on Route 44, and actually owned the cemetery,” Merolla said. “People purchased plots from Stollard.”

In the center of the cemetery, a stone monument stands in memory of James Fish, a North Providence man.

“We have a record he bought a burial plot from Stollard measuring 16 ½ feet by 16 ½ feet,” Merolla said. “For the time, this was very, very unusual. This cemetery operated more like a modern commercial cemetery.”

Merolla dates most of the stones to the mid-19th Century to the early 20th Century.

“It’s full of strange stones,” he said. “They’re mostly made of concrete, more than likely for poorer families who could not afford marble or granite headstones.”

Merolla recently led his team of historical landscapers – Doug Stephens, Historical Society President Elise Carlson, Carl Johnson, Marie Thierfelder and George Picotte – armed with weed whackers and gardening tools.

The cemetery has been transformed over the past decade.

Not long ago, the graves inside were practically unreachable, completely covered with brambles and trees and painful thorny bushes.

“This cemetery was a terrible mess,” Merolla said. “Probably the worst cemetery in town. It was a mass of brambles, dense undergrowth and thorns.”

A local Civil War re-enactor would climb through the treacherous growth to plant flags on the graves of Civil War veterans buried in Cemetery No. 7. He’d emerge scratched and bloody, but undeterred.

Eventually, a group from Citizens Bank did a lot of the initial heavy lifting, clearing out the worst of the overgrowth. That group performed a community service, and helped maintain Cemetery No. 7 until the beginning of the COVID pandemic last year.

“They did a really fantastic job for a while,” Merolla said. “They cleaned it up and were maintaining it. They did 80 percent of the work. They even planted flowers; perennials that still pop up.”

Now that they’ve ceased regular volunteer maintenance of the burial ground, Merolla and his cemetery committee have attempted to take over.

Merolla walked toward the section bordering Route 44, where stone pillars and some rusted metal railings define several lots, each about the size of a box truck.

“Obviously some families were moved other places,” Merolla said. “Some families moved the graves of their relatives, which at the time, was not uncommon.”

The Historical Society theorizes many were the families of iterant workers, when their time working at the nearby mills ceased, eventually moved away, taking their departed family members with them to new locales.

“It’s not rare,” Merolla said. “It does happen. Some possibly moved to other states. And some were probably taken out and moved to more commercial cemeteries with more consistent upkeep, with perpetual care.”

A large tomb, its door bolted shut, can be seen along the street. The contents of the tomb are a bit of a mystery to Merolla and his cemetery committee. He guesses it was a holding crypt for men and women who died during the winter, but couldn’t be buried in the frozen ground.

The Historical Society is hoping local men and women will step up to help maintain these important plots of Johnston history.

Merolla said the society needs more help, like they have received at the town’s Historical Cemetery No. 21 (along Hartford Avenue), where Dan Parrillo and his son Mitchell take lawnmowers and cut the grass about once per month.

“Dan is a Johnston Historical Society member and one of the finest guys you’d ever want to meet,” Merolla said, wishing he had more volunteers like the Parrillo family.

Merolla also sent thanks to the town’s Department of Public Works, which has helped especially during windy weather, when large trees have toppled in the town’s historic burial grounds.

“We contacted public works and they did a fantastic job,” Merolla said. “I can’t say enough for the work they did.”

DPW workers dissected the fallen trees and pulled them from the cemeteries without damaging headstones.

Town workers also help maintain the grounds surrounding the Historical Society Putnam Pike headquarters.

Although the historical cemeteries are on town-owned land, few taxpayer resources are expended on cemetery upkeep.

Merolla and the Historical Society have worked hard to bridge the maintenance gap. They’ve purchased equipment to help fulfill their mission, but still need able bodies to wield the tools.

“In the past the town used to take care of some, but they’ve cut back,” Merolla said. “We use our machines, and our gasoline. But we’re getting older now too, and we could use some more volunteers.”

The dead can’t rise up and say “thank you.”

However, for Merolla and his fellow volunteers, the sight of uncluttered resting places for the town’s community founders is thanks enough.

Near the cemetery center, a plain white monument stands in memory to “Our Soldier Boy," marking the grave of Andrew J. Collins, son of Henry and Susan.

Collins, a 15-year-old Union child soldier, was killed in battle near Atlanta, Georgia on July 30, 1864.

According to the inscription, young Andrew J. Collins was a member of Company B, 15th Regiment, 3rd Battery, USA.

“This was during Gen. William T. Sherman’s march through the south,” Merolla said. “The fighting in Atlanta didn’t start until a few days later, but there was fighting outside of Atlanta, and they were skirmishing all over the place.”

According to the US Army Center of Military History, Collins’s battalion fought on Kenesaw Mountain from June 23-30, and marched their way to a battle at Neil Dow Station on July 3 and 4, 1864.

By the end of July, when Collins lost his life, Company B was preparing to fight the Battle of Utoy Creek, which raged from Aug. 4-7. His company had been attacking Confederate railroad lines encircling Atlanta, under Sherman’s command. A week later, the Union took the key southern city.

A flag stands next Collins’s grave. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated few, nobody was forced to shed blood to plant the flag this past Memorial Day.

And appreciative townsfolk can now visit the eternal resting place of a 15-year-old boy who gave his life for his country.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second story of a weekly series looking into the conditions and history of the town’s nearly 100 historic cemeteries. The Johnston Historical Society needs help. Anybody interested in volunteering to help maintain an old cemetery in town, by mowing the grass and/or clearing weeds and debris, is urged to contact the Society by calling 401-231-3380.

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