Cemetery tours: Uncovering a city's past from the ground up

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Photo Gallery | Stockbridge Cemetery Tours


What do one of the oldest survivors of the Titanic, one of the original marketers of the Ouija Board and the inventor of the electric streetcar have in common?

All three once called Stockbridge home and each of their graves is featured in the Stockbridge Library's monthly cemetery tours.

"We started with five tours in 2012 and we're now up to six," said library volunteer Karen Marshall, who leads the Stockbridge Cemetery tours.

The second tour of the season, "The Odd, Quirky, Interesting, and Unusual: Stories You Have to Hear," takes place Saturday, June 7, at 4 p.m.

"There's so many interesting people who are buried here," she said. "It's a lot of fun to plan out themes and see some of the people pop up time and again. You learn how they are connected with each other and how they touched the world with their interest and abilities."

For instance, there's the Field family, whom Marshall likes to refer to as "The Overachieving Fields."

"The family includes a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, the inventor of the motor for the trolley car, the man responsible for the trans-Atlantic cable and another who codified New York state law," she said.

Among the cemetery's more well-known residents are Mumbet, also known as Elizabeth Freeman; Norman Rockwell; Mary Hopkins Goodrich, founder of the village beautification society, the Laurel Hill Association; and the Sedgwick family.

The Stockbridge Library's Museum and Archives began hosting the cemetery tours nearly a dozen years ago, but only held them as special events once or twice a year, according to museum curator Barbara Allen.

Marshall, a former museum educator who last worked for Historic New England, changed all that when she and her husband moved to Stockbridge in December 2011 and began volunteering at the library.

"We were very happy when Karen came," Allen said. "It allowed us to offer tours other than in October. Our tours are about respect and interest. Offering tours over the course of six months is better. It gives you a chance to tell a good story."

She added, "It's interesting and it's a lot of fun to tell the story of people who lived here. [The tours] provide a focus we don't have when giving a lecture standing in front of a room.

"It's not easy to present [the history of a person] as a lecture -- it's not as cohesive, it's not easy to get excited about; there's nothing to hold on to. When presenting next to a grave in a cemetery, you have a very obvious connection."

For Marshall, a tour begins with a theme and research -- the people she talks about fall into place after that.

"From there I map it out -- I don't want to stay in one spot too long," she said during an interview at the cemetery. "We've had a range of topics in the last two years, from Stockbridge Cottages to these quite interesting stories about the grave diggers who worked here and are buried here."

Marshall added, "Barbara and I research the town records and the archives. The museum has been keeping its own records for at least 75 years. For a very small town, an awful lot has happened."

Allen concurred, "No matter what the topic, you can find someone to fit it."

"It's amazing who has lived here, since the town's population has historically been around 2,000 people," she said. "The town was settled by six families, but by the 1800s, the town has grown immensely from the initial 100. Once it hit 2,000, it's stayed at that level -- hovering around 1,700 to 2,100 throughout its history."

Stockbridge isn't the only Berkshire County cemetery to attract tourists.

North Adams historian Paul W. Marino has been leading tours of Hillside Cemetery and Southview Cemetery since the late 1990s.

View Hillside Cemetery in a larger map

"When I first started the walks, I was involved in the [North Adams] historical society at the time," he said. "Maureen Wood was president at the time and we heard of someone else who was giving tours out at Hillside Cemetery. This person gave [the group] a brief talk on funeral motifs and then turned them loose. Maureen and I thought we could do better I was already doing research for our documentary ‘HistoryWorks,' so some it became the Hillside Cemetery walk. Then I did one for Southview Cemetery and branched out into Main, Church, Center and Veazie streets."

Beyond being able to tell the stories of the city's past residents -- including a man who influenced Abraham Lincoln's presidential nomination, the inventor of the railroad brake and the father of archeological photography -- Marino also likes showing others the gravestones.

"Some of the art is just breathtaking," he said. "A couple of my favorites include the Isbell family's tree; the grave of Mary Eliza Wilkinson, which has Birdie written on it; and the Rice grave shaped like a child's bed."

Explore more local cemeteries with Online Editor Jennifer Huberdeau on her blog, Beyond the Grave, at berkshireeagleblogs.com/beyondthegrave/.


If you go … 

What: Stockbridge Cemetery Tours 

Where: The tour gathers at the cemetery gate on Main Street (Route 102), Stockbridge. 

When: First Saturday of the month through Oct. 4, 4 p.m. Tours last about an hour. 

Suggested donation: $5 

Tour Dates: 

June 7: ‘The Odd, Quirky, Interesting, and Unusual: Stories You Have to Hear' 

July 5: ‘Stockbridge Cottages: Who, When and Why' 

Aug. 2: ‘The Library: From Idea to Building; From House to Community Center' 

Sept. 6: ‘The Main Street Look: What it is and Who made it' 

Oct. 4: ‘The Cemetery's Story: From Past to Present' 

More information: Call the Stockbridge Library at (413) 298-5501, or email ksmarshall03@gmail.com

What: North Adams cemetery tours 

When: Dates to be announced 

Online: A self-guided Hillside Cemetery tour can be found at paulwmarino.org/hill-side-cemetery-part-1.html


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