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History of Oak Lawn Cemetery in Fairfield, CT

At precisely 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 22, 2006, David S. Huntington, the 13th Chairman of the Oak Lawn Cemetery Association, called the 140th annual meeting of the Association to order. Just over 1,400 individuals owned lots in the cemetery by then, and many of these persons were scattered across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. The remains of nearly 10,000 persons, as of May 2006, were interred in Oak Lawn’s almost one hundred acres. More than five miles of cemetery roads were needed to provide easy access to all the grave sites.

Oak Lawn Cemetery Association was incorporated on December 29, 1865. Its name resulted from a fortunate coincidence; in the 19th century, Americans regarded the oak and the acorn as symbols of immortality; and, by chance, across Bronson Road from the cemetery towered a stately oak tree – subsequently generations would know it as “Cemetery Oak.” The founders thought the name a logical choice.
In 1864, the Connecticut General Assembly conferred upon the Oak Lawn Association the authority to purchase for not more than $1,200 the 12 acres Captain Jonathan Godfrey had located near Bronson Road. The funds necessary for this acquisition and for improving the grounds “by roads, walks, planting, pruning, etc.” came from selling 90 shares of stock at $50 each.

The first meeting of the stockholders of Oak Lawn Cemetery convened at the Southport Savings Bank on December 29, 1865. The investors voted to make John A. Alvord superintendent of the new cemetery at a salary of $300 per year and to take possession in the name of the Association of the 12 acres near Bronson Road. The associates also adopted by-laws for the cemetery, by-laws that required an annual meeting of lot owners, explained the method of summoning directors’ meetings, defined the duties of officers, described how deeds to individual lots were to be executed, and established a series of common sense rules for the cemetery.

Those men who met at the Southport Savings Bank to form the Oak Lawn Cemetery Association were as prominent a group as could have been assembled in Fairfield at the time. Captain Edwin Sherwood, who became the Association’s first president, had abandoned his father’s farm when he was seventeen to go to sea. Eventually accumulating more money than he could in good conscience ever spend, he gave up his maritime life in 1850 to become the president of the Southport savings Bank. He served as Oak Lawn Cemetery’s president from its founding in 1865 until his death in September 1886.

John Abel Alvord, the cemetery’s first superintendent and, at 39, its youngest stockholder, was the driving force behind Oak Lawn’s creation. Oliver H. Perry’s services were nearly as essential to the cemetery’s conception as Alvord’s. Perry was the son of a prominent ship owner and merchant. Perry’s sister, Delia, actually owned as much cemetery stock as he did, but, unlike her brother, she appears to have played no role whatsoever in the cemetery’s development. Benjamin Pomeroy, whose efforts on behalf of the cemetery lagged behind only those of Alvord and Perry, lived on Pequot Avenue in Southport. Captain Moses Bulkley, Captain George Bulkley, and Captain Jonathan Godfrey were all close friends of Pomeroy. Warren D. Gookin was the only Oak Lawn stockholder who had grown up outside Southport. His brother-in-law, William Webb Wakeman, himself an Oak Lawn stockholder, convinced Gookin to invest in the cemetery even though he resided in Brooklyn, New York. The last of the ten men and one woman who provided the funds to open the cemetery was Frederick Marquand. Once one of New York’s wealthiest residents, he spent his retirement organizing the Southport Savings Bank, serving as its president before Edwin Sherwood took over that post, and endowing hospitals and schools of theology.

With men like these directing the cemetery’s activities, it was little wonder that Oak Lawn developed as rapidly as it did. They had a clear vision of what they hoped the cemetery would become. These men were men of business; most of them as much at home in New York as in Southport. Five – Edwin Sherwood, Benjamin Pomeroy, Moses and George Bulkley, and Frederick Marquand – had decided to flee New York permanently for the tranquility Southport offered; William Webb Wakeman and Warren D. Gookin both had plans to follow their colleagues’ example. Alvord, Perry, and Godfrey had never succumbed to New York City’s allure. For all ten, the idea of placing a cemetery in an area that was connected, even remotely, with commerce was preposterous. Even if locating close to the Post Road had not been an invitation to vandalism, they, unlike Fairfield’s original settlers, were convinced that a firm demarcation ought to exist between the commercialism of city and town like and “the place of sepulcher.”

Oak Lawn Cemetery was, from the first, intended to attract visitors, not turn them away. The founders thought of it as a demure but not a doleful place. Cemetery, a word that was only then coming into common use in the United States, originated from the Greek word for “resting place.” As it was understood in nineteenth-century America, the cemetery was a temporary home for deceased persons as they awaited the final judgment. Unlike their Puritan ancestors, Fairfielders by 1865 were generally optimistic about what awaited them after death. No longer obsessed with damnation, more local residents anticipated an eternal life in paradise than one spent amidst the fires of hell. But just as it was a resting place for the dead, Oak Lawn Cemetery served also as a place of repose for the living. Amidst its picturesque but planned landscape, reminded of the accomplishments of ancestors and of the community, impressed by the art of the stone cutter, visitors, while aware of the inevitability of their mortality, were more likely to recognize the achievements of life than to dread the arrival of death.

Accomplishing such noble objectives required foresight and commitment on the part of the Board, generally, and on the part of Superintendent Alvord in particular. He immediately set about transforming what had been Salmon Wakeman’s cow pasture into a cemetery. Roads had to be established, trees, and brush cut, shrubs planted, and lots surveyed.

The object of all this activity, of course, was to provide burial lots. During its first year of operation, Oak Lawn sold lots that fronted directly onto a road for $0.20 a square foot and rear lots for $0.10 a square foot. Apparently persons who lived in Fairfield at the time found these prices reasonable because 23 lots were sold in 1866; their average price was $31.05. Ninety lots were sold the following year and sold for an average of $30.84.

Sixteen individuals were interred in Oak Lawn in 1866 and 46 the following year. Most of these persons were individuals whose remains had been removed from some other location. Of the first 62 burials, only 10 were first-time burials, while 45 were bodies removed from the West Burying Ground, four from the Greenfield Burying Ground, and three from Mountain Grove, a cemetery that primarily served the needs of Bridgeport. More than half of the first 170 interments were transfers from the West Burying Ground. Whether first or second time burials, virtually all those individuals buried at Oak Lawn during its first few years had lived in Southport, Fairfield, or New York City (probably with a summer home in Southport). Even after the directors voted to establish a potter’s field available to any indigent Fairfield resident, Southport and Fairfield persons continued to dominate the Oak Lawn population.

Once Oak Lawn had graded its land, installed roads, surveyed lots, and planted some trees and shrubs, it only had to maintain the Association property. Individual lot owners either tended their own gravesites or hired others to do so for them. One persistent problem, of course, was that some lot owners either would not or could not keep up their property. This circumstance gave the cemetery an uneven appearance; some lots being carefully manicured while others sat neglected and overgrown. The directors decided in 1874 to meet this problem by voting “that the Superintendent be instructed to keep all the burial lots properly cleaned by being mowed as often as three times a year if necessary.” At the same time, the Association offered each lot owner the opportunity to purchase for the “consideration of one dollar” an agreement from the cemetery “to keep said lot in good order and condition, year by year, by mowing the grass … when necessary, and otherwise caring for the grasses … without expense to the owner of said lot.”

The cemetery’s income grew large enough to retire the outstanding stock of the Association. Back when the cemetery was only a year old, the Association had voted that one third of the gross receipts from the sale of lots should be reserved to pay annual dividends and to buy back a portion of the stock. In December 1869, the Oak Lawn Association agreed to retire half its stock on January 1, 1870; two years later, it decided to withdraw an additional eighth and the following year voted to take up the remaining three-eighths. In other words, as the Fairfield News reported, “since 1873 the lot owners have been, and are the sole proprietors of the cemetery and of a substantial and increasing fund for the upkeep and beautifying of the property of the association.”

In 1907 Mabel Osgood Wright began to take a deep interest in the cemetery. She and her sister, Agnes H. Osgood, were convinced that Oak Lawn Cemetery had become too cluttered, too overgrown. They developed a plan to make the grounds less rustic and more park-like. They wanted fewer trees in the cemetery. They hoped to see it become more open, more spacious, more pastoral, more attuned to the modern tastes.

Without any authorization from Oak Lawn officials, Mrs. Wright hired a tree service to plant oaks along the riverbank just north of her parents’ grave. The location in question was Association property, not part of the Osgood lot, and the tree planting was only part of her scheme for beautifying that particular site. Mrs. Wright had inherited from her father an unfortunate propensity for carving aphorisms onto stone. He had inflicted enough inscriptions on boulders and outcroppings at his property to keep the stonecutters of Fairfield busy for weeks at a time. After his death, his daughter had an enormous boulder deposited near his monument and had the words “God is our rock” carved into it. When she ordered the trees for the riverbank, she also purchased another boulder, began searching for an appropriate inscription, and had it placed on property belonging to the Oak Lawn Association. The Board responded by ordering the boulder removed and by resolving “that the planting of trees on any part of the cemetery grounds shall not be undertaken until a comprehensive plan for the improvement of the Cemetery has been submitted to the Directors and approved by them.” For the time being, Mrs. Wright was foiled.

Later that year, in November, she was back with a new plan and the support of four influential allies: Mrs. Harriet D.C. Glover, Mrs. Helen W. Glover, Miss Bessie L. Child, and Miss Annie B. Jennings. The Glover women were sisters-in-law, were highly regarded in Fairfield, and were both the widows of prominent men. Bessie Child was the daughter of Frank S. Child, pastor of First Congregational Church, and Annie B. Jennings, heiress to a substantial part of the Standard Oil fortune, rarely if ever heard anyone in town openly challenge her opinions. The five sought permission to make various improvements along the riverbank on Association property. The Board, to its credit, responded by granting their request but “with the express understanding that the permission both to trim out the dead wood and to plant new trees applied only to ground along the riverbank.”

Apparently Mrs. Wright and her allies were not the only lot owners dissatisfied with the appearance of the cemetery. Oak Lawn probably needed the improvements they advocated, need to be more open, needed more lawn and fewer trees, needed to become what landscape architects then called a “lawn park cemetery.” Complaints from a variety of sources began to circulate at the conclusion of Andrew Sherwood’s 36 years as superintendent. During most of his time at the cemetery, he had performed well, but toward the end, both his energy and his enthusiasm began to wane. He was encouraged to resign in 1921, and Arthur Mills replaced him. Mills suggested to the Board that new projects and new equipment would quiet the lot owners’ criticisms. He convinced the directors to make cosmetic repairs to his home at the cemetery entrance, to hide the cemetery barn with a new fence, to build new roads and open new lots, and to mow all lots, even those without perpetual care, regularly. To accomplish all this, he persuaded the Board to buy a road scraper that he could use “by the hiring of an extra horse” and to consider the purchase of a “motor lawn mower.”

His remedies failed to attack the basic issue; the cemetery was badly overgrown, cluttered, and apparently out of control. At the January 12, 1926, meeting of the Board, “there was a general discussion of the condition and management of the Cemetery with the expression that the care of the grounds was far from satisfactory.” Following the discussion, Simon C. Bradley, conscious that much of the criticism was directed at him, declined re-election. William O. Burr, a farmer from North Benson Road, accepted the presidency and the challenge of putting the cemetery into shape.

During Burr’s first year in office, the Board fired Mills and charged the president “to investigate the matter of securing a new Superintendent for the Cemetery … at a price not exceeding $150 per month and house rent.” To make the position more attractive, Burr recommended the superintendent’s house be equipped with running water and electricity. H. Everett Hull, possibly enticed by these conveniences, eventually accepted the job and set to work trying to create order from the cemetery’s confusion. He would remain with Oak Lawn until 1943.

Burr also urged that some of the cemetery’s outspoken critics be brought onto the board and their ideas considered. Consequently on December 14, 1927, at the annual lot owners’ meeting, Annie B. Jennings, Virginia B. Perry, Mrs. Helen W. Glover, and Mrs. Isabel Perry joined the eleven male members of the Board. Annie B. Jennings and Helen W. Glover are already known to the reader; Virginia Perry was the granddaughter of one of the cemetery founders, Oliver H. Perry, and the niece of another, George Bulkley; and Isabel Perry was the daughter-in-law of Oliver H. Perry and the widow of Henry Hoyt Perry, Oak Lawn treasurer for 35 years.

Burr’s leadership and Hull’s management, along with the new ideas of the four female directors, apparently did improve the cemetery’s appearance. Relative to a thoroughly modern facility, such as Pinelawn Cemetery on Long Island, Oak Lawn remained old-fashioned and dowdy, but without question it had taken on a more park-like look. Mrs. Wright’s efforts, as annoying as they had sometimes been, had not been in vain. Lot owners’ meetings became more placid than they had been in many years.

Another problem, however, emerged to plague Burr and to introduce more dissension to the Board than it had ever known before or has known since. Two local real estate developers began, during the winter of 1927-28, to use the cemetery entrance to reach an otherwise inaccessible parcel of land they owned. President Burr was lackadaisical in forcing the offenders to desist. As a result, Oliver Gould Jennings, a member of the Board and, like his sister, Annie B. Jennings, a person of great wealth and influence, took the unprecedented step of challenging the re-election of an incumbent president. Jennings captured the presidency by a single vote. At the same time, David Hull Sherwood Huntington, the grandson of David Hull Sherwood, became the Oak Lawn Secretary.

Oliver Gould Jennings had no desire to remain president of the cemetery; he had sought the position only to eliminate the trespassing problem. At the end of his first year in office, he resigned and sought election to the newly created office of vice president. Just before he exchanged one office for the other, he presented the cemetery with “an automobile truck.” Consequently, for the first time since it had come into existence, the Oak Lawn Cemetery owned no horses but did have a vice president.

J. Walter Perry took over for Jennings. Like the Association’s first president, Edwin Sherwood, and like another of its founders, Frederick Marquant, Perry was president of the Southport Savings Bank. His sister Virginia B. Perry; his father, John H. Perry; and his grandfathers, Oliver H. Perry and George Bulkley; had all been directors at Oak Lawn. J. Walter Perry remained the president of the cemetery for twenty years, from 1931 until 1951.

During the post-World War II years, the Association’s investments grew prodigiously. This was largely the result of the sound advice the Board’s Investment Committee received from Arthur O. Jennings, a director from 1951 until 1958. The son of Arthur O. Jennings, Oak Lawn president from 1893 until 1916, the younger Jennings managed Charles W. Scranton Company, Stockbrokers, of Bridgeport, the firm that then oversaw the cemetery’s endowment.

Acknowledging the growing complexity of operating the cemetery, the Board in 1970 voted to hire “a full-time paid manager who would, within the framework of general policies adopted by the Board, direct the operations of the cemetery.” Further explaining its decision, the board went on to state “that Oak Lawn had now grown to the point where the burden of directing daily operations and providing the Board with data for reasonable decisions is now more than should be imposed on the President.” Consequently Edward Meeker, who had succeeded I.N. Hawkins as superintendent in 1966, found himself, as of 1971, working for Donald W. Nielsen, Oak Lawn’s first manager.

W. Eben Burr succeeded Overbaugh as Oak Lawn president. His inauguration meant that for the first time the cemetery would be headed by the son of a former president. Burr’s father, William O. Burr, had held that post for four years; his son would remain for six.

As his father had before him, Eben Burr worried about Oak Lawn’s appearance and encouraged the staff to pay particular attention to the impression the facility was likely to make on visitors. The task was a complex one. Overgrown trees and unruly shrubs obscured not only views across the cemetery but also grave markers and even monuments. The cemetery staff found that digging graves was often a time-consuming task as tree limbs, refractory plants, and tenacious roots complicated their work. Because the Depression and the World War had meant depleted manpower and resources for Oak Lawn, much of this unwanted vegetation had avoided a thorough pruning since Burr’s father’s administration. During the Overbaugh years, so much money had been spent paving roads and erecting buildings that the Board had been disinclined to buy the modern equipment needed to give the cemetery the park-like aspect expected by late twentieth century Americans.

The process of transforming the cemetery’s presence began during the years of Eben Burr; it rapidly accelerated once David W.P. Jewitt accepted the Oak Lawn presidency in 1982. Unlike most members of the Board, Jewitt could not claim to be a lifelong Fairfield resident; he initially encountered the town as a child, when his family began spending the summer in Westport. His professional career was spent in banking, first in New York City and eventually in Bridgeport. He realized the cemetery would have to be more willing than ever to spend money if it was to achieve the prominence he believed it deserved. He certainly understood the cemetery crew could operate efficiently only if it used up-to-date machinery. Such equipment would pay for itself, he believed, in terms both of increased productivity, which meant long-term savings, and of the cemetery’s improved appearance, the gauge by which lot owners and potential lot owners judged it.

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