HOPKINTON — Just down the road from Town Hall, at 459 Main St., the Thurston family’s ancestors lie beneath their headstones in Historic Cemetery Number 17, eternally at rest, it would seem, save for the threat posed by an old rotting maple tree.
On the surface, the solution to this problem would be to simply remove the tree. But the situation is complicated by the troublesome fact that no one owns the cemetery land.
Richard Prescott, president of the Hopkinton Historical Association, explained that the lack of registered ownership of the Thurston burial ground was not a bureaucratic oversight, but rather the intent of Rhode Island’s founding father, Roger Williams.
“Going back to Roger Williams and the separation of church and state, everybody buries their dead according to their own beliefs, purposes and customs,” he said.
Gracing the cemetery are several massive maple trees planted more than 100 years ago. Last February, during a blizzard, one of them lost a large, scaffolding branch that took down part of the surrounding stone wall as it fell. The volunteers from the historical association who maintain this and other historic cemeteries in Hopkinton were unable to move the heavy limb, or address the larger issue of the huge, rotting tree from which it had fallen. If it were to fall, the tree would destroy several headstones that are of significant historic value and impossible to repair.
One of the headstones marks the grave of George Thurston Jr., one of Hopkinton’s first citizens.
“Hopkinton City started to grow in the mid-1700s. One of the first people to move here was George Thurston Jr. George Thurston Jr. became General Thurston, and he’s buried right there,” Prescott said, pointing to a faded gray headstone.
Thurston’s son Jeremiah became lieutenant governor of Rhode Island. His headstone sits near his father’s. When Jeremiah Thurston died in the 1880s, the family gave $200 to the town to use for the care and maintenance of the cemetery.
Hopkinton Town Council member Barbara Capalbo said that the town held the money, but had never spent any of it. “They put aside $200 back then for the upkeep of the cemetery, and the town did take that and said ‘We’ll hold it for you,’ because again, nothing is owned by anyone. But we’ve never used it, so it has grown into $1,200 — and something.”
Town Council President Frank Landolfi said there was not nearly enough money in the cemetery account to cover the cost of removing the tree.
“We have a perpetual care account to maintain the cemetery, but the principal of $200 we cannot spend. We can spend any amount over and above that to care for the cemetery. It so happens that there’s about $1,067 in there that has accrued over the years since 1886, so that can be used, but the lowest quote we have to take down the tree that’s rotted is $2,800, so we’re about $1,730 short,” he said.
Since it does not own the land, Landolfi said the town could not use municipal funds to remove the tree.
“I’m just not comfortable using taxpayer dollars to take a tree down on land that we do not own,” Landolfi said. “I feel bad that the historic cemetery has a rotted tree on it, but it’s such a dangerous precedent. If we do this, there are a dozen more cemeteries that are not on town land that could need money for the same situation.”
With the autumn storm season approaching, members of the historical association would like to raise the additional $1,700 quickly, so the tree can be taken down by September. Prescott and Capalbo hope the money will come from three sources: the historical association, Hopkinton residents and the town.
“We need to have everybody pull together,” Capalbo said. “We can use the account, we can use the Hopkinton historical association and the municipality.”
Prescott said preserving the cemetery is important, because it is a record of the town’s past, as real as the written records in the town vault.
“At Town Hall, there are written records of the town, and the town takes care of them and you have to go into a vault to look at them. Here we have a record that’s carved in stone,” he said.
Landolfi said the town might be willing to contribute some money if the association and interested citizens also raise funds.
“If they come up with a fair amount of dollars to match what’s in the cemetery account, well then, that’s another story. We’re not that far off. Then maybe the council can meet again about this topic,” he said.
Donations can be sent to the Hopkinton Historical Association, P.O. Box 37, Hopkinton, 02833. The association will also post information on its website, www.hopkintonhistoricalassociation.org