Lending a hand: Volunteers gather to clean up historic cemetery in...

Lending a hand: Volunteers gather to clean up historic cemetery in Huntington

Supervisor Chad A. Lupinacci joined Huntington historian Robert Hughes and volunteers from Jephtha Masonic Lodge #494 in Huntington on Saturday, July 18 for a cleanup of The Old Burying Ground, Huntington’s oldest cemetery.

The event was one of several projects the local Masons were involved in during the recent pandemic shutdown. Although the lodge is comprised of mostly Huntington residents, members from other lodges from as far as Port Jefferson volunteered in this important preservation project. Armed with work gloves, pruning shears, weed trimmers, a cooler of cold bottled water and a bit of determination, the team went right to work after a brief historical lecture by the Town Historian.

The crew trimmed shrubs, pulled overgrown weeds, raked leaves, and removed debris from the cemetery which is just a short walking distance from the Jephtha Lodge building on New York Avenue.

“Our historic cemeteries tell the story of not only of the establishment of our Town but of the critical role Huntington played in the founding of our nation,” said Supervisor Chad A, Lupinacci. “As we recognize and preserve other aspects of Huntington’s history, we must continue to protect these sacred grounds to honor the souls of generations of Huntingtonians buried here.”

“These volunteer efforts are critical to preserving the Town’s historic cemeteries. Eternal vigilance is the price of preservation,” said Town Historian Robert Hughes.

“I have been a Freemason and member of Jephtha lodge #494 for around 8 years now and have been fortunate to recently take on a leadership role. I’m proud to have been able to coordinate with town historian Robert Hughes and the brothers and family members of Jephtha lodge, in effort to clean up the old cemetery,” said Anthony Colonna, Grand Master, Jephtha Masonic Lodge #494.

“The rich history of this burial site must be carefully preserved. I propose to make this an annual event, perhaps starting this fall. Jephtha’s benevolence committee has gotten off to a terrific start and we seek to do more for the community this year and the ensuing years to come. Helping make a positive impact on the community is just one part of what freemasons are all about,” he added.

“The Brothers of Jephtha Lodge have anticipated this event for some time,” said Ronald Seifried, Trustee Chairman and Lodge Historian. “The lodge is grateful to the Town for being receptive to the lodge’s ongoing effort to give back to the local community by utilizing Jephtha’s benevolence committee for this important preservation of this designated historic landmark. The members look forward to future projects with the town to preserve our local history. Jephtha Lodge is proud to call Huntington home since 1860.”

The Old Burying Ground has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981. The earliest surviving marker is over 300 years old, but many of the early wooden and fieldstone markers were lost over the years and never replaced. Located on a hill that once had a clear view of Huntington Harbor, the site was originally chosen because of the difficulty to farm on the hilly terrain.

There are 1,246 marked graves on the 4-acre site, but it is estimated that there may have been up to 8,000 interments since the founding of the Town of Huntington in the mid-17th century. The first legible marker is dated 1712 and the final burial was Russell F. Sammis in May 1957. Mr. Hughes explained to the group the variety of markers that can be seen in the cemetery, including local fieldstones, slate, sandstone, marble, iron, zinc and granite.

In 1782, the last year of the American Revolution, occupying British troops destroyed the nearby Presbyterian Church and constructed Fort Golgotha on the highest point of the hill with timbers removed from the church. The British desecration of the church and cemetery is the first recorded act of vandalism in Huntington. Up to 100 tombstones were destroyed and some were used as bake ovens where, according to local legend, the baked bread had reverse inscriptions of the tombstones readable on the lower crust.

With the opening of Huntington Rural Cemetery on New York Avenue as the Town’s main cemetery in the mid-19th century, the Old Burying Ground was used only occasionally. Regular maintenance of the cemetery is conducted by the Town’s Department of General Services. In 2004, the Town received grant funding from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for the restoration, conservation and preservation of the grounds.

This project between the Town Historian and Jephtha Lodge, which has called Huntington home since 1860, is the latest of several coordinated efforts. Other projects include the installation of an historical marker in front of the lodge building on New York Avenue; participation in the Huntington Historical Society’s historic village walking tour and pub crawl; sharing of archives between the lodge and the Huntington Historical Society; and invaluable assistance in the newly published book “Long Island Freemason,” by Ron Seifried.

Photos from Town of Huntington

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