About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Gloucester, Massachusetts was first settled in 1623.  The Pilgrims even came here from the Plymouth Colony to establish a fishing stage.

By about 1640 a permanent settlement had taken hold.  Life was hard, winters were harsh and the mortality rate was high necessitating a burial ground.
Just off what we now know as Centennial Avenue a burial ground was established.  Centennial Avenue was then known as Burying Ground Lane.  This ancient cemetery, the First Parish Burial Ground dating to 1644, is one of the oldest in the country.  It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Entrance gates to the First Parish Burial Ground
Numerous other cemeteries were scattered about this old community.  They are not as old as the First Parish Cemetery but they are very old.  In West Gloucester there is an old cemetery on the Old Thompson Road. In Lanesville under a canopy of old trees is the Lanes Cove Cemetery, and in Bay View another very old cemetery covers a hillside in full view to people driving along Washington St.

Descendants of these early settlers are spread far and wide across this country and beyond and many make the trek to Gloucester hoping to find out about their ancestors and find where they are buried.. They often run into a snag and this is why.

A good place to start the search for ancestors is the Gloucester Archives Committee in City Hall.  This volunteer group has manned this office for more than twenty five years not only to help visitors but to keep the early records in order and moved into archival folders and boxes.  Gloucester’s records have survived intact but that is nothing short of a miracle.

In the early days there was no town hall or city hall.  The records were kept in the homes of the town clerks.  These town officials took their job seriously and guarded the ancient records carefully. They have survived and are amazingly complete.
Gloucester's first town house,  Now the American Legion with
alterations by architect Ezra Phillips after WWI

In the late 1860s a new town hall was built  replacing the 1840s Town House, now the American Legion.

The new large brick edifice with many vaults in the basement housed the precious records that had previously been precariously kept in private homes.

About three years after it was built the new city hall was destroyed by fire.  What about the records?  The vaults held and miraculously the records all survived.

 A new city hall was built on the old foundation and these same vaults are still in use.
Gloucester City Hall

Now visitors armed with documents and family genealogy are ready to seek out the graves of their ancestors in the old cemeteries.

This is when they often run into a problem, especially at the oldest and largest First Parish Burial Ground.

Here the growth, bushes, vines and poison ivy have rendered this cemetery almost inaccessible at times.

The Thompson Road ground is deep in the woods accessed by a path that is all that is left of the Old Thompson Road.

When the old cemeteries reached their capacity newer burial grounds were opened up.  At this point the City would abandon the old cemeteries and neglect to even cut the grass.  As far back as the nineteenth century, over one hundred years ago, concerned residents and visitors bemoaned the awful conditions in our overgrown burial grounds.

One descendant of an old family, the Dollivers, came to Gloucester in his retirement and inventoried the First Parish Cemetery. Until the late 20th century this was the only inventory in existence.

The newest cemetery in Gloucester is the Dolliver Cemetery on Lincoln Street in West Gloucester. The name honors of Mr. Dolliver who gave his time to inventory the old cemetery even though he wasn't a resident.  Born in Gloucester but living in Boston, Dolliver was a descendant who was offended by the lack of respect for his and other forebears.

Nature wanted to take over, Trees and brush sprouted and shortly the unused cemeteries became the target of vandals and repositories for all kinds of trash.  Stones were broken and all were a mess.

The City says it does not have the manpower or the funds to properly care for these final resting places of our ancestors.  Many have attempted through volunteer efforts to correct the problem but are soon overwhelmed.  The condition of the graves of our ancestors has long been a disgrace and an embarrassment.

Nevertheless, over the years good old “Yankee Ingenuity” has come into play several times with hopes of overcoming this huge problem.

In the early 1970 a group of teenagers were brought together by Al Duca, a local sculptor,  With grants and much publicity these kids tackled the Bay View Cemetery. This plan was to give these teenagers a paid job to keep them occupied during summer vacation; to learn and to transform this old cemetery. They de-sodded the ground, they identified flowers and plants, they were introduced to archealogy, they learned about genealogy, they got state permission to remove and repair stones.  The kids even built a small building to house and display their findings and learned about construction as they worked on the building. 

Hillside cemetery at Bay View

This project seemed to be  successful but after it was completed there was no money for ongoing upkeep and in a very short time it slid back into a neglected state.  The “kids” who worked so hard are now middle aged and beyond. Neighbors have pitched in at various time to lend a hand. (I am pleased to report that this cemetery has recently been cleaned up and is looking great.  I don’t know who is responsible.)

Meanwhile, in Lanesville, a couple who live near the ancient Lane’s Cove Cemetery, took on the responsibility for its upkeep but that cemetery is much smaller than the First Parish Burial Ground and more manageable.  That is not to say that it isn't hard work.

Old cemetery at Lane's Cove
In the nineties my friend, Edie, known around town as the “Cemetery Lady” stepped up to the plate and along with another couple spent years inventorying the abandoned cemeteries, especially First Parish.  Edie is the most elegant, refined lady that I know.  That is why the following incident was unforgettable as she used her Yankee Ingenuity in an effort to clean up the cemetery.

One nice summer day I drove to the First Parish Burial Ground looking for  Edie knowing I would most likely find her there. 

As I approached the cemetery gates I saw a large, drab, sinister looking van parked there.  On the side of the van it said "Massachusetts Correctional Department"  or something similar.  And there in the middle of the cemetery stood Edie wearing a picture hat, the very picture of a genteel lady, surrounded  by an armed guard and a crew of prisoners from the Salem Jail hard at work clearing the cemetery!  What a great idea!  It was a scene I will not soon forget.

Unfortunately, other department heads saw this creative source of manpower and the prisoners were diverted to other work sites, 

So you ask yourself how in the world the early colonists maintained these plots of land.  They had no spare time and no power equipment to make the job easier.  But they did have sheep and goats!  These animals can and do eat all sorts of weeds, brush and even poison ivy.

Sheep doing their job in unknown cemetery

Another friend, Helen, recently read a story about goats being used to clean up a park so she made an inquiry to a company who rents out goats!

This week, Monday, October 20th, goats arrived at the old First Parish Burial Ground!  They are enclosed with electric fencing to protect them and are already hard at work.

Goats perched on broken grave stone at First Parish Burying 
Ground, Gloucester, MA taking a break from their work (Gloucester Times photo)
Credit must be given to the many volunteers who over the years have made valiant and creative attempts to tame the growth in the old cemeteries including some new volunteers who are right now serious about helping.

If the history of the past is the forecast of the future, perhaps goats (or sheep) are the answer. 

Time will tell!

Post Script, October 24th


When the dates for the visiting goats were agreed upon no one anticipated that a wild northeaster would strike the area with ferocious winds and heavy rain.  The roof blew off their shelter and Helen found them cold and wet, huddled together.  It was decided that the little goats should return to their permanent home.  They will be back next year.

Even so, it was clear that they were indeed making a difference.


  1. Hi Pru! Thanks for your post! I'm glad to see Helen McCabe being celebrated for her hard work on the cemetery and for her brilliant plan to bring the goats :) Have you visited? They are sooo adorable. And quite busy. (Although I guess they evacuated them last night due to the terrible weather.) You probably know that Helen is going to pass the reins along but perhaps you don't yet know Rachel Meyer, Joshua Gerloff, and Crystal Daley who have been cleaning up the cemetery themselves, and have done a truly incredible job in a very short time (they are there all the time)! Rachel has also managed to find someone to come to Gloucester and do trainings on how to repair gravestones. The time and effort they've put in has been enormous and I'd like to see them getting some recognition. Also I'm sure they would love to meet YOU, so perhaps you can stop by sometime if you have a change. Thanks for all YOU do, you're amazing.
    Amanda Nash

  2. Thank you, Amanda! I had not gotten over to see the goats and yesterday found out they were evacuated. The poor things! The roof off their shelter and huddled together, cold and wet in the midst of a northeaster...I'm glad they were rescued. I'm impressed with the persistence of the volunteers who are making progress over there.

  3. I love it when animals like goats and sheep are used to clear vegetation. It's very eco-friendly and they are very cute :)