I’m not certain how it was that I first got interested in a cemetery. Maybe it had something to do with a shotgun.
In the 1980s there was an ornamental shotgun that was fobbed off as the czar’s until it was exposed as a phony. Czar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs and the last czar before communists took control of Russia, would have been interested in the real thing. And the real thing came from Meriden, thanks to Charles Parker.
It was on its way to the czar, and made it as far as New York Harbor, when the outbreak of the First World War meant it could go no further. For years, it was a mystery what happened to the gun Meriden had made for Nicholas II. Then it surfaced, decades later, and I went up to an auction in Maine to watch it get sold, for $250,000.
I know hardly anything about firearms, but I learned enough to recognize the quality of those made by the Charles Parker Company, which also manufactured coffee mills, spoons, clocks and piano benches. Lots of stuff, but it’s the guns that made the company famous and makes them coveted collector’s items.
So much so that when enthusiasts learned of the disrepair plaguing the Parker gravesite they took it upon themselves to clean it up — and the last time I looked, which was admittedly a long time ago now, the Parker gravesite stood out like a sunflower amid the decaying ruins of East Cemetery.
The place is a font of history: It is the burial site of four Meriden mayors, which, incidentally, includes Parker, who was elected in 1867. The others are Wallace A. Miles, 1888; Levi Elmore Coe, 1894 (and re-elected the following year); and George Seely, who served two, two-year terms beginning in 1901.
There are also many veterans of war interred at East Cemetery, including 94 veterans of the Civil War. There is William Merriam, a veteran of the War of 1812, who died in 1873. There are four veterans of the Spanish-American War, five veterans of the First World War and three veterans of the Revolutionary War. Robert Bradford is buried at East Cemetery. He was a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the French and Indian War.
That, folks, is a lot of history. And among this field rich of those who served is one who served the cemetery. Anna Gibson came to Meriden from Ireland in 1853. She started maintaining East Cemetery as a volunteer, because she was worried about the condition. She would mow the grass and tidy the lots. She was still working on it when she died, at age 94, in 1929, having spent four decades as caretaker.
There’s been no one around to take such good care of it since, and as the Record-Journal reported the other day, the city only found out a decade ago that East Cemetery was Meriden’s responsibility. Two years ago, the City Council set up a task force, which was to get an idea of what needed to be done and recommend action.
The committee, shall we say, was not up to the task, and missed a July 2018 deadline to report. Now City Manager Tim Coon has taken over, which means East Cemetery should finally receive the attention, and potentially the care, it has so long needed. With the approval of $23,000 he’s requested, Coon can move forward to hire a firm to take care of “approximately 26 individual graves, gravestones, and memorials.”
The idea, he told the Record-Journal, is to “first get it cleaned up.” What may follow is the hiring of a sexton, or somebody to finally replace Anna Gibson, and perhaps establish a cemetery association.
At long last East Cemetery is getting the respect it deserves.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org