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Cemetery Crusader

Until two years ago, the Greenfield Hill Cemetery on Bronson Road defined the word decrepit. Scores of moss-covered tombstones lay scattered in pieces while others were listing precariously. Three-hundred-year-old inscriptions were obscured along with chapters of Fairfield’s history.

It took the curiosity of Jeff Taylor to reverse the cemetery’s aging process. Living with his family in a historic home neighboring Greenfield Hill Church, Taylor was fascinated by founding father, Abraham Baldwin, who owned his house in the late 18th century. A visit to find Baldwin’s memorial headstone marked a fateful moment in Fairfield’s past and future.

Although pleased to find a link to his predecessor, Taylor was struck by the poor condition of the cemetery. “I knew the stones were slowly disintegrating and the entire site would vanish into the earth if measures weren’t taken to care for this historic site.” As an executive at Bridgewater, Taylor explains, “I spend my days in a very cerebral job and I love working with my hands as a way to strike a balance between mental and physical activity. My goal is to slowly improve the cemetery with an eye toward Greenfield Hill Church’s 300th anniversary in 2025.”

The cemetery ignited a deep fascination with past generations of Fairfielders, prompting Taylor to seek out the town’s permission to restore the centuries old site in 2016. Despite skepticism and sparse funding, Taylor forged ahead with months of research and red tape in order to make the project a reality. The beginning was a bit of a reconnaissance mission, reassembling pieces of headstones and finding their original locations, using maps from 1898 and 1950, procured with the help of the Fairfield Museum and History Center. Over the years, weather, erosion, and lawn care equipment wreaked havoc on the cemetery’s once orderly layout. Despite the weight of the stones (anywhere from 160 to 1,000 pounds) each row had morphed into a zigzag pattern over time, so reestablishing even, regulated lines was a priority.

The “zoning” of the cemetery was merely a warm up to the heavy lifting—removing stones from unstable, twisted positions, and creating snug, enduring pockets in the ground. Taylor is quick to praise his loyal co-workers on the restoration of 300 out of the cemetery’s 900 stones. Initially, Taylor sent a letter of introduction to his Greenfield Hill neighbors, and his own parish and neighbor, Greenfield Hill Congregational Church, explaining the project and soliciting help. In 2017, Taylor established open work days each month to encourage people to learn about the process and help with the work. The Eunice Dennie Burr Chapter of The Daughters of the American Revolution are regular volunteers often spotted cleaning with an organic solution that makes the once sullied stones gleam white. Fairfield student, Henry Durham, even chose the cemetery as the beneficiary of his Eagle Scout project this past spring.

“It’s heartwarming to look out and see so many volunteers spending their free time on this project. One of my most loyal supporters is Brian Hommel, who spotted me working while he was on a bike ride,” Taylor recalls. “We chatted about the project and since then, he’s been a solid member of the restoration team.” Behind the scenes is Laura Lugo, who researches the “residents” of the cemetery, which includes men from three wars, most notably, the country’s largest contingent of Revolutionary War soldiers.

While the town of Fairfield gave Taylor the green light to restore the cemetery, the approval did not come with significant funding. In addition to personally purchasing much of the equipment and underwriting the expense for specialized training by gravestone conservator, Jonathan Appell, Taylor created a foundation called “Grinning Graves.” Its apt motto, “Sta Viator,” translates to “Stop, traveler, you trample upon a hero.” Taylor is also President of the Greenfield Hill Conservancy, whose purpose is to fund the cemetery’s restoration. He recently earned the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation Award of Merit in honor of his committment to the project.

Dr. Isaac Bronson, the inspiration for the eponymous road, is one of the cemetery’s famous inhabitants, celebrated as a Revolutionary War surgeon and for planting the first dogwood trees in Greenfield Hill. Taylor considers this multi-year project as a way to honor the brave people, like Bronson, who gave up their lives in established cities to create a new community. “I see these early residents of Fairfield as entrepreneurs, taking a risk on setting up businesses and raising their families in uncharted territory.” Their remains may be six feet under, but Taylor and his team are honoring their memory.

More info or to donate, grinninggraves.com.

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