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Medfield’s Vine Lake Cemetery flourishes as historical resource

Preservationist Rob Gregg is a familiar presence in Vine Lake Cemetery’s old section.
Preservationist Rob Gregg is a familiar presence in Vine Lake Cemetery’s old section.Photos by George Rizer for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

A craggy hillside. A frozen lake beyond. And reaching toward the winter sky, bare-boughed lindens, leafless oaks, a smattering of red pines guarding the gravestones, some of them placed here 364 years ago.

This is the old section of Medfield’s Vine Lake Cemetery in the early afternoon on a bone-chilling January day, a day too cold even for Rob Gregg, a hearty Vermont native bundled up in a green L.L. Bean parka, the hood pulled over his head, the edges of his fleece balaclava framing a tiny circle of exposed skin.

As promised, Gregg, 71, a former Congregational minister and retired high-tech sales and marketing professional, will give a short, informal tour — just enough to satisfy the curiosity of a photographer, a reporter, and an artist along for the ride.

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There is plenty for him to point out: scrubbed marble gravestones; pruned trees; righted zinc markers rescued from the ravages of gravity and time, now secured in the ground; six years’ worth of restoration and repair by local volunteers whose work has transformed the 3-acre section of the town’s 30-acre cemetery from a drab and overlooked public space into a popular outdoor museum.

Gregg, who moved to Medfield more than 40 years ago, organized the Vine Lake Preservation Trust in 2009 after visiting Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown. Mount Auburn, which dates to 1831, is a functioning garden cemetery with a strong friends group, strong financial support, and an annual visitor count of 250,000. Its bird-watching walks, lectures, archives, and collections of historical materials are legendary.

Now, the Vine Lake Preservation Trust has its own impressive roster of activities and publishing ventures, including a map offering a self-guided walking tour of the property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; an informational brochure; and a free, monthly newsletter titled “Quiet Voices.”

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“Legends and Legacies of Vine Lake Cemetery,” a series of five lectures, kicks off Saturday with a talk by Laurel K. Gabel, “How Gravestones Keep Little-Known Secrets.” The free talks will be held in the Daily Room at the Medfield Public Library, 468 Main St., from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Bree Harvey, the vice president of cemetery and visitor services at Mount Auburn Cemetery, said people are increasingly realizing that historic burial grounds are repositories of not only history, but also art, architecture, horticulture, and sociology, among other topics.

“At least once a month, we get calls from smaller historical cemeteries,” Harvey said. “In the past year or two, we’ve had calls from cemeteries in Vermont, Maine, and much further afield — Virginia, Tennessee, Atlanta.”

On this bitter cold afternoon in Medfield, Gregg stopped to inspect one of the old section’s 2,155 marked graves; it is topped by a marble sculpture of a little girl resting sweetly against a lamb. This is the grave of Anna Day Hoisington, who died from tuberculosis in 1859, four days shy of her second birthday, Gregg says.

Farther away, he paused before an obelisk where the memory of Civil War veteran Allen Alonzo Kingsbury is honored. According to the inscription, Kingsbury survived the battle at Bull Run only to die in a skirmish at Yorktown, Va., in 1862. He was Medfield’s first casualty in the war.

What first brought Gregg to the old section, on a promontory overlooking busy Main Street on one side and the serene Vine Lake on the other, was an interest in his own family history.

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“My passion for researching my family history, my Medfield connections, propelled me to explore the cemetery,” he said.

It was the condition of the grounds that inspired him to create the trust.

“The deplorable condition of the memorials in the older section — broken, toppled over, fallen over decades ago and covered with turf,” he said in describing the neglect that tugged at his heart.

He wasn’t the only one who noticed.

Mark Fisher, 58, in his third term as a Medfield selectman, still remembers how the cemetery looked before Gregg organized the trust and the volunteer work crews of which Fisher has been a part.

“The Department of Public Works kept the grass cut and did the best they could. But there wasn’t the expertise, the time, and the knowledge,” said Fisher, a relative of one of the town’s founding families.

“My passion for researching my family history, my Medfield connections, propelled me to explore the cemetery,” said a Medfield resident.
“My passion for researching my family history, my Medfield connections, propelled me to explore the cemetery,” said a Medfield resident.George Rizer for the boston Globe

The town’s DPW still mows the cemetery’s grass, tidies the grounds, and keeps an eye out for vandalism. But it’s the trust and its volunteers that are the stewards of the oldest graves.

“You get a sense of community,” said volunteer Susan Harlow, a psychotherapist, descendant of Mayflower immigrants, and member of the trust’s board of directors.

“It helps to have a personal connection,” said Gregg, who has counted 1,171 relatives buried in the old section, and for 41 years has lived in the 1845 Jacob Cushman House on South Street, its second, third, and fourth owners also related to him.

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It’s different for residents who didn’t grow up in New England. Vine Lake Preservation Trust volunteer Randy Karg, a Midwesterner who moved to Medfield in 1997, said where he comes from, an “old” cemetery dates to the early 19th century.

“This is a very old site, especially when compared with similar facilities in the Great Lakes and northern Plains region,” Karg wrote in an e-mail. “While there was exploration and trading in the Great Lakes area during the 17th century, these early (mostly French) explorers left no physical evidence of their presence in the area.”

For Gregg, the old section of the town’s cemetery is both conduit and anchor.

“The memorials are the only tangible connection we have to people who used to live here in Medfield,” he said in his kitchen on a rainy Monday.

Later that day, in an e-mail, he cited the homemade markers he likes to visit. He described a crudely carved fieldstone, a trapezoid, engraved with the name “Lydia Lovell,” and on the top, “1661,” visible only if sunlight hits the surface at the right angle.

“How ingenious and practical,” he wrote, considering how, in later years, families chose more elaborate and expensive memorials to honor loved ones. “Another example of industrious settlers who chose an emerging art form to express memory.”

Two days later, bundled up in his L.L. Bean jacket and balaclava, Gregg traced the top of Lydia’s stone with a gloved hand, searching vainly for the invisible date. Overhead, the sky stretched like a frozen shroud.

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For more information about the Vine Lake Cemetery, visit www.vinelakepreservation- trust.org. The “What We Do” section provides a link to “Quiet Voices,” the nonprofit group’s monthly newsletter. Hattie Bernstein can be reached at hbernstein04@icloud.com.