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Dream of a manse on a Vt. hilltop runs into tradition, suspicion

Noah Aldrich II, who died in 1848 and was laid to rest in a cemetery on a picturesque hill on his property, is now interred at the base of that hill.
Noah Aldrich II, who died in 1848 and was laid to rest in a cemetery on a picturesque hill on his property, is now interred at the base of that hill.Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

HARTLAND, Vt. — For more than 150 years, the people who once farmed the picturesque land where J. Michel Guite at one time hoped to put his elegant new house lay buried in a little-visited cemetery on a hilltop.

Six acrimonious years later, the remains reside at the bottom of the hill, painstakingly relocated to new graves by a team of archeologists.

But moving Noah Aldrich and his brood meant unearthing a lot more than their ancient bones.

On farms and fields, in courtrooms and coffee shops, the saga has stoked anxieties here about the finality of our final resting places. It has also fed fears about out-of-towners — derisively called flatlanders — buying up property in a place where the bond people feel with the land remains uncommonly strong.

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Guite would learn, to his chagrin, that even his decades-long roots in the area weren’t enough to seal his Vermonter stripes — at least not for some. And that the boundary between law and tradition can be a remarkably fuzzy one, making it hard to unearth exactly what someone can acceptably do on their own patch of green.

“The [Aldrich] family selected that place. They picked the most beautiful spot on their land to put the people they loved,” said Carol Mowry, a past president of the Hartland Historical Society. “I don’t think everybody has the right to do everything they want with a piece of land.”

Guite, the founder of a small telephone company that serves Hartland and 13 other Vermont villages, paid $2 million for 163.9 acres of gently rolling hills and New England forest here in 2008.

Some see 25-year resident Michel Guite as a “flatlander.”
Some see 25-year resident Michel Guite as a “flatlander.”

When he bought the property, he said, he envisioned a farmhouse at the top of the hill and made sure he could move the cemetery to build it there. The graveyard, he said at the time, allowed the public to wander onto what he planned to make a working farm. It had also become, he said, a lure for “a tiny number of people to come roaring up at 2 in the morning drinking beer.”

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Now, he describes the purchase as a reluctant effort to help the land’s previous owners, a Buddhist monastery his wife visited occasionally, out of a financial jam following their own lengthy court battle over their plans for the land.

Whatever his reasons, disturbing the ancient Vermonters’ eternal slumber proved disturbing to the living as well.

Among the many who objected to Guite’s plan was Jerome King, whose family owned the farm from 1950 to 1983. He said he had buried his parents’ ashes in the little cemetery — Guite disputes whether the Kings were ever buried there — and was not keen on the idea of Guite evicting them.

During the protracted legal battle that ensued, courts focused on the convoluted history of the cemetery’s ownership. Guite’s opponents, operating under the mistaken impression that Aldrich was a veteran of the War of 1812, arrived at hearings in period costume.

Lower courts found for King, but this war had a clear winner: The Vermont Supreme Court found in Guite’s favor in 2011. The cemetery, it turned out, never belonged to Guite or to King; it belonged all along to the Aldrich clan, and two dozen Aldrich descendants had given Guite their written blessing.

“He jumped through all the hoops,” said Town Manager Robert Stacey.

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 The Aldrich Cemetery as it looked in 2008, located within a white picket enclosure.
The Aldrich Cemetery as it looked in 2008, located within a white picket enclosure.CALEB KENNA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

The new cemetery is set close to Town Hill Road, and three white headstones, restored at Guite’s expense, stand in the rear of the enclosure. One belongs to Noah Aldrich II, who died in 1848; another to his wife, Lydia, who followed four years later. The third belongs to two girls, Louisa, 6, and Martha, 16 months, who died a day apart in 1850. Several unmarked fieldstones now stand atop the graves of those whose first burials were more humble.

The archeologists who exhumed the cemetery found 10 bodies in all, plus a cat, said Kate Kenny, a historical archeologist at the University of Vermont’s Consulting Archeology program.

The archeologists found Noah and Lydia Aldrich. Others were most likely relatives, Kenny said. They never found Louisa and Martha, instead digging up the remains of an unidentified and very large man who was at rest there.

Guite bought a coffin for each body — including the cat.

Opponents acknowledge that Guite, who paid for the archeologists, did the grim work with more care than was required, but they say that’s not the point. “We’re only here for a short time,” said Mowry. “I don’t have the right to undo something that should be there for the next generation.”

To that end, preservation groups successfully pushed a change to state law that made it more difficult to move a cemetery, said Charlie Marchant, secretary of the Vermont Old Cemeteries Association. Among the new restrictions — passed too late to apply to Guite — is a requirement that the move must be made for public good, not private benefit.

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More than respect for the dead was behind the change; also, protecting something time-honored and local from the influence of outsiders.

“It’s a part of your town’s history that just got changed, because someone has money,” Marchant said.

In interviews earlier this month, Guite said he wasn’t some predatory rich guy swooping into Hartland to build a mansion. In fact, now years removed from when he bought the land, Guite said he may never build a house here after all.

“I’ve been here for 25 years, and feel from here,” said Guite, who has homes in Springfield, Vt., and Connecticut.

For some, that will never be enough. Mowry said Guite is one of many rich newcomers “buying up great globs of land, who’s not going to contribute to the town.  . . . They take the best land and the best views, and they close it off to everybody else.”

And buying up the land is just the beginning.

All over places like Hartland, out-of-towners “bring all their ideas with them from down country,” said Gordon Richardson, chairman of the board of selectman and a lifelong resident of his family’s farm. “They put stones or something on this cute little path. And they put solar lights all along it. And they plant trees you buy at a nursery that have been trimmed to a shape.”

The land in these parts “was perfect before they touched it,” he said.

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But as much as people here love their land the way it is, most also respect the right of others to tend theirs the way they want, Richardson said. Guite, in this view, was within his rights, but made no friends in exercising them.

Guite believes that some of those who most fiercely defend Vermont’s culture are not people who were raised here, like Richardson. Rather, he said, they are transplanted flatlanders wedded to a rustic fantasy version of Vermont and protecting it with a converts’ zeal.

“They live in a world where they believe Vermont must be this old way,” Guite said.

That was the way of old Noah Aldrich. But he doesn’t live here anymore.

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com.