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Volunteers working to restore abandoned Massena cemeteries

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MASSENA - A group of volunteers is trying to bring life back to some abandoned cemeteries, starting with one on West Orvis Street.

The cemetery holds the remains of more than 350 people, including 13 Civil War veterans, according to Massena Town Historian MaryEllen Casselman.

But, over the years, many of their headstones have been either damaged by the weather or vandals. Some headstones made from marble or slate have deteriorated over the years, making them illegible, while granite headstones have weathered the years. Other headstones have been toppled and broken, and some are buried in waist-high overgrown grass behind Nadeau’s.

Many of the names contained on the headstones should be familiar to travelers in Massena - names like Ransom, Phillips, Andrews, Orvis, Garvin, Danforth and Barnhart, which later became the names of streets and roads around the village.

“Every street, they’re all here,” said Nancy Bogosian, a volunteer on the committee that also includes Ms. Casselman, Joseph D. Gray, Steve Rombough, David Talarico, Linda McDonald and David Frary.

Another volunteer who stepped forward was Marlene Robillard-Ramatici and her two sons, Harley and Ethan, who joined Ms. Casselman and Ms. Bogosian at the site on Wednesday. Members of a local Boy Scout troop will be assisting on July 30 as a community service project.

Among those who are buried at the cemetery is Uriel Orvis, who had owned a large amount of land and donated the property for the cemetery, Ms. Casselman said. The current American Legion Post 79 in East Orvis Street was originally the Orvis home.

The first documented burial at the cemetery was his sister-in-law, Martha Emerson, who died in 1829. The last burial was in 1979.

“Laura Emerson married Uriel Orvis Submit and was Laura Orvis’s mother. She was married to William Emerson. William was in the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Ms. Casselman explained.

Another Emerson daughter, Clarissa, married the Rev. J.H. Walden and had a son, J. Orvis Walden, who died in a rebel prison.

“Clarissa is buried here and a 1-year-old daughter,” Ms. Casselman said.

Also buried there is Joseph Harrison, who lived from 1833 to 1872 and was one of the first wardens at St. John’s Church. He was described as a “dapper little Englishman” from Montreal who owned a tailor shop that employed two women.

Susannah Harrison, who was born in 1982 and died in 1897, was one of the first communicants of St. John’s Church, along with Eliza Taylor.

The restoration project at the West Orvis Street cemetery will look to bring some of those headstones back to life, along with cleaning up the grounds. Mr. Frary will be working with Witherby and Whalen to hopefully reset some of the headstones, Ms. Casselman said. They have a list of the names of those in the cemetery and notes on what needs to be repaired at each grave site.

All together, the group hopes to tackle five abandoned cemeteries in the Massena area.

“It’s a five-year window. The first project will be a couple of years,” Ms. Bogosian said.

“We thought this would be a wonderful project,” which would serve as part of the revitalization of the downtown area, Ms. Casselman said. “This and Massena Center have the most history.”

What they need in addition to time will be funding and volunteer help, she said. The funding will help them with items such as grave cleaning supplies and the cost of resetting headstones.

“We’re starting from Orvis and seeing what we can do. We started with this one downtown to make some progress and hope it might snowball and get people interested,” Ms. Casselman said.

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