Group Breathes New Life into 200-Year-Old Cemetery

12:52 PM, Aug 13, 2011   |    comments
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A group of volunteers with the Cheektowaga Historical Association have worked to restore the Bennet Family Cemetery, which dates to the early 1800s.

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y.- Tucked away on a hill on Walden Avenue, behind a car dealership and a shopping center, sits a historical gem.

But until recently, the Bennet Family Cemetery really was a diamond in the rough.

"It was a mess, as far as the stones are concerned," said David Przepiora, a volunteer and retired Cheektowaga police lieutenant. "Most of them were broken, and a lot of them were laying on the ground."

Over the past year, the cemetery, which was established in the early 1800s by Elnathan Bennet, one of Cheetowaga's founding fathers, has undergone a transformation. Weeds threatening to destroy the fence surrounding the cemetery have been removed, and many of those broken stones have been repaired. The efforts are thanks to Przepiora and a group from the Cheektowaga Historical Association.

"The town doesn't have the resources to do this," said Richard Chamberlin, another volunteer who is also a retired police officer. "So it takes volunteers to come out and do this stuff and preserve some of our history,"

Some of the gravestones were split into as many as six or seven different pieces, many scattered across the site, and even sunken deep into the ground.

"We're still finding pieces that-- a little piece goes here, a little piece goes there," said Przepiora.

The volunteers gather about once a week, putting in time that ranges anywhere from two to eight hours. The restoration is still a work in progress, and the volunteers say they are anxious to see how their work holds up against the Western New York winter.

"This has been a very hard task," said Maureen Gleason with the historical association. "Some of those headstones weigh 200 pounds easily, and it takes two, three, four men to actually lift the stones and put them back on their bases."

The group has reassembled them, glued them together, and in some cases built wooden braces to support them.

"The cleaning as well was very intense. Literally taking scrub brushes, and little baby toothbrushes to clean these headstones," said Gleason.

With each new piece of information gleaned from these headstones comes new insight into Cheektowaga's past.

"There wasn't always a car dealership and a shopping mall and a donut shop around the corner, before they came there were farms and businesses, and merchants, and that's how we got where we are today," said Chamberlin. "And it's important we remember that."

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