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Hillsborough man restores old cemeteries to provide a ‘happier resting place’

  • Dick Baldwin of Hillsboro and one of the headstones he is trying to salvage in a cemetery off of Church Street in Hillsboro. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dick Baldwin on Wednesday walks into the Bible Hill Cemetery, one of 19 cemeteries in Hillsborough. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • The marker for Clarissa Beard lies on its side at the Pine Hill Cemetery in Hillsboro. Beard lived to be 101 years old, according to her gravestone. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • David Rutter (left) and Richard Whitney (center) help Dick Baldwin lift a grave marker back into place at the Kimball Corner Cemetery in Hillsborough on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dick Baldwin of Hillsboro works on getting the grime off the headstone of David Kimball, buried in the Kimball Corner Cemetery in 1865. Baldwin and two others worked Wednesday, May 30, 2018, to clean up the cemetery with six markers in a remote area of Hillsboro. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dick Baldwin walked straight to the dilapidated headstone belonging to David Kimball when he arrived at the Kimball Corner Cemetery in Hillsborough. With his bristle brush and old spray bottle full of a special cleaner, Baldwin went right to work, scrubbing the headstone in circular motions. Decades of dirt and grime lifted away.

At the nearby grave of Lovey Kimball, David’s mother, two other men used crowbars and rocks to lift and reposition her fallen headstone.

“You ever heard the name Lovey before?” Baldwin asked as he walked over, brush and spray bottle in hand.

The 78-year-old from Hillsborough works with a group of three other volunteers repairing, restoring and preserving hundreds of headstones in the town’s 19 cemeteries. All the work is done by hand.

“We have a thing for the abandoned. The downtrodden. The forgotten,” he said.

The sprawling town has centuries of history buried in some of its most remote locations. The old cemeteries are now owned by the town after having been acquired from families who owned the land where their ancestors rest. But with no family members around, or anyone being interested in caring for the headstones, most of them are in disrepair.

Born in nearby Peterborough, Baldwin has spent all but 12 years of his life in Hillsborough. He works during the summers with his friend Richard Whitney, Warren Fleck, and a younger man named David Rutter.

“Thank goodness for Dave,” Baldwin said – Rutter does most of the heavy lifting.

Whitney and Baldwin went to high school together, but they didn’t reconnect until a little over 30 years ago, as Whitney spent most of his adulthood in Keene. For Whitney, the project is really about giving back to the town.

“This is the last thing you can do for these people, and without these people, we wouldn’t be here,” Whitney said.

“I got started with this when I was doing some research on my mother’s side who is from the area,” Baldwin said. It’s now been more than seven years since he embarked on this effort to preserve the history of the headstones and the memory of those buried beneath them.

He said he’s aware very few people know what he does.

“We’re really just trying to get the word out,” he said.

The real work began when Baldwin asked the town for a list of people buried in the cemeteries; he wanted to cross-reference the lists with the headstones. He came to find out the lists weren’t totally accurate – some people were misplaced, misidentified or just simply missing. But what got to Baldwin the most was the condition of some of the headstones.

“I was doing some research to try to locate the graves of my ancestors and my relatives, and some of the cemeteries were in just terrible shape,” Baldwin said. These cemeteries are also home to many veterans who served in wars from the American Revolution, through World War II and beyond. Being from an Army family, and having served in the Army, Baldwin felt a special connection to honoring those who fought to make out country what it is today.

After approaching the three cemetery trustees of Hillsborough about the condition of the graveyards, Baldwin volunteered to clean and repair the headstones. He later asked his friend Richard Booth to help build a website with an up-to-date list of people buried in the cemeteries.

Picking up the pieces

To clean the headstones, Baldwin said he uses a special, environmentally safe, stone-specific cleaning agent called D2. No metal tools are allowed as he scrapes off dirt and moss from the headstones. No pressure washers are allowed either, as they will chip away porous rock. Wedges and crowbars are used to re-align fallen headstones. A special two-part epoxy is needed to repair the rock, and a special grout fills cracks. The volunteers use bolts and brackets to hold pieces of the headstones together.

Baldwin said the town reimburses the cost of materials but not labor, provides lawn mowing services and places small signs at the entrances of the cemeteries. He stays in contact with the cemetery trustees to update them on his volunteer work.

The repositioning of fallen headstones is done by hand. If the base has fallen over as well, the crew will dig out the space under the headstone so it will fit upright again. Buckets of pea stone are used to fill the space beneath and surrounding the base. Using crowbars and a good amount of muscle, headstones can be repositioned relatively quickly.

“Build a bigger base to fill with stone so it doesn’t get a lot of water in it,” Whitney said to Rutter. “The frost is what moves them around.”

Baldwin said they will work for a few hours at a time. The cleaning of a headstone takes only about 30 minutes; repositioning one doesn’t take long either.

Down the road

The Kimball Corner Cemetery on Kimball Road is one that Baldwin and the crew haven’t been able to work on. But on Wednesday, they loaded up Whitney’s red pickup truck with over a dozen buckets of pea stone, shovels, rakes, crowbars and a wheelbarrow. Baldwin’s car contains all the necessities for cleaning the markers.

Miles down a seldom-traveled road no longer maintained by the town, the cars trekked on into the wilderness, albeit slowly.

Lined with abandoned vehicles, houses and trailers, the cemetery isn’t easy to spot. Baldwin said a map the town gave him had a little cross marked on it, and he knew that meant it was another cemetery.

When asked why he wanted to work on this cemetery even though it is so out of the way, Baldwin had a simple response: “Because it’s here. It’s out of respect, really,” he said.

Following the old rock walls along the side of the road, one might drive right past the hill the graveyard is on. A small sign sits at the end of a little walking path up to a clearing and a square rock wall surrounding six headstones and a massive oak tree. The oldest marker at this cemetery is dated 1819, a 3-year-old girl named Delora Hartwell. The five others are all members of the Kimball family, with the last burial being Amos Kimball in 1876. However, one member of the family is missing.

“You find anybody yet?” Baldwin joked as Rutter and Whitney repositioned the headstone of Lovey Kimball, wife of the absent Abraham Kimball.

“Some of this stuff is lost in history. Husbands and wives are buried in different cemeteries. Maybe they had some different family dynamics,” Baldwin said as he washed off Lovey Kimball’s headstone. A little more than an hour later, with two headstones repositioned and cleaned, Baldwin stopped.

“They’re looking from up there and telling us to take a break,” Baldwin said.

“Or from down there,” Whitney said as he pointed to one of the graves.

‘You have to like history’

A majority of the cemeteries Baldwin works on have family names. Located in some of the most remote parts of Hillsborough, Baldwin said it takes a special kind of person to do his what he does.

“You have to like history,” he said. “It really is all about preserving what we have.”

Of the 19 cemeteries in town, Baldwin said four of them are still being used for burials. He’s worked on 14. There are a couple graveyards the town has asked Baldwin not to work on, like the Pine Hill Cemetery. The cemeteries range in size from one person buried, to a small family, to more than 100. In all, Baldwin estimated 3,000 are buried across Hillsborough.

“I like being outside and doing this. It’s very quiet out here. You can say whatever you want, and no one will talk back to you,” he said with a smile. “They all seem pretty peaceful.”

Baldwin said the most common reason for the cracking of the headstones is ice. The porous rock will fill with water that freezes during cold nights, expanding and ultimately cracking the headstone. Freezing groundwater is the main culprit for stones being moved out of position.

He recognized the constant struggle between restoration and preservation.

“The hardest part is trying to decide when you’ve got a headstone that is in pieces laying on the ground. How do you restore that? Because it’s about preservation and preserving what you can,” Baldwin said.

Some markers are too damaged to be repaired, so he leaves them on the ground but will align the pieces so they’re legible.

Baldwin said the most rewarding part of this endeavor for him is honoring the people buried.

“I can stand there at a headstone and say, ‘There you are, John, I got your headstone back together. I hope you can see it,’ ” he said. “When I’m gone and there’s a headstone over me in 200 years and it’s fallen, I hope somebody comes by and puts it back in place.”

As of right now, Baldwin does not know who will take over the restorations when he is no longer able to.

Learning from them

A self-described history fanatic, Baldwin said he’s learned a lot during his time working on the graves. He said the majority of the people buried around town were religious and because of that, the bodies were buried oriented west to east. The head was placed on the western side of the plot with the feet at the eastern side. This way, the deceased can face the rising sun, “to see the Lord,” he said.

Footstones were also commonplace. A stone with generally just the initials of the deceased was placed where the feet are. Headstones can weigh several hundred pounds and be buried 3 or 4 feet deep, others only a couple inches.

Baldwin said you can learn a lot from the engraving on headstones, and he believes the cemeteries have a certain aura about them. He said he can feel the energy of those buried.

While Baldwin said he does feel discouraged when he sees the way cemeteries are treated today, he also recognizes the lack of interest in what he does. But people have been respectful of his work, he said, evident in the lack of vandalism he sees compared with what he hears from other towns.

Baldwin hasn’t worked on any cemeteries outside Hillsborough, but he has offered his services to other New Hampshire towns and his wintertime home of Apollo Beach, Fla.

Before he leaves for Florida in early October, Baldwin said he will revisit the cemeteries with headstones he’s cleaned and respray them with D2. He doesn’t wash it off, he said, because the cleaner will help preserve the marker through the winter.

“Different people have different ideas of what a cemetery is. Some people think, ‘Well, they’re gone, don’t worry about them, move on,’ ” Baldwin said. “I look at them more as a monument to the people who came here and built the town and sacrificed. I want to make these people a little happier with their resting place.”

(Jacob Dawson can be reached at 369-3325, jdawson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @jaked156.)