County to address condition of Dewittville Poor Farm cemetery

An abandoned cemetery owned by Chautauqua County is in dire need of attention and may soon be getting some.

During the legislature’s Administrative Services Committee meeting, County Clerk Larry Barmore and county Historian Michelle Henry discussed the condition of the former County Poor Farm cemetery, located in Dewittville.

Recently, digging was taking place for a septic tank at the former Poor Farm and some skeletal remains were unearthed. That discovery brought up the question on what to do with the remains once the investigation by the Sheriff’s Office is complete.

Barmore said some people have suggested placing the remains in the abandoned cemetery, but that cemetery is in very poor condition. “We found that the cemetery down there is totally disgusting. We did not sell the cemetery in 1961 when we built the new county home in Dunkirk, when we sold the farm,” he said.

He said the county has been in charge of maintaining the cemetery “but I guess it’s gotten away from us.”

Barmore feels it’s time for the county to take responsibility of the cemetery again. “We’ve got possibly 1,500 residents buried there and we’ve just pretty much forgotten them,” he said.

Henry agrees. She said the cemetery was first established in the early 1830s. By 1864, there were 600 people buried there, who previously resided at the Poor House. At that time the cemetery was doubled in size and the county continued to bury people there through the 1920s.

“There could easily be 1,600, 1,800 people buried out there. We know there are two veterans of the Civil War who are buried there,” she said.

When the county owned the Poor House, it maintained the cemetery properly. But maintenance stopped once that County Home was sold. Henry said when she was appointed county historian in 2000, she was given a tour of the cemetery by private citizens who asked her about getting it cleaned up.

“I worked with the Sheriff’s Department and had prisoners out there,” she said. “We had some folks from the Shock Incarceration in Brocton out there at different times. Twice I’ve had Boy Scout troops go out and clear the land. The county never really took responsibility.”

Part of the difficulty in keeping it clean has been that the property is landlocked. She noted the county has permission to access it with an egress but they never brought in heavy equipment back there. “Any time we’ve cleared it, we’ve used weed wackers, chainsaws, brush trimmers,” she said.

Now some trees have fallen on the cemetery, which will take a tree service to address it properly.

Henry guesses the property is about an acre in size and needs regular attention once the fallen trees are taken care of. “It was a part of the county’s operation from 1830 until we sold the County Home. We were always dedicating time and energy to caring for the poor and I think this cemetery is still our obligation,” she said.

Legislator Bob Scudder, R-Fredonia, agreed. “To me it seems like it’s a responsibility of ours to take care of,” he said.

Henry suggested looking for some grant funds, but Legislator Lisa Vanstrom, R-West Ellicott, said unless there’s historic value, there are virtually no grant funds available.

Legislature Chairman Pierre Chagnon, R-Bemus Point, said caring for the cemetery should just be part of county operations. “If my mind, if we’re all in agreement that we have at least a moral responsibility and possibly a legal responsibility, this should be part of the county’s budget. We should budget funds and have a program for maintaining it on a structured basis. … If it’s the county’s responsibility then let the county taxpayers pay and let the county facilities maintain it,” he said.

Henry said the current Poor House owners are very accommodating, however she recommended updating the easement so that mowers can be brought back on a regular basis. Abdella said he would review the original agreement that allows the easement and see if it needs to be addressed.

Scudder thanked Henry and Barmore for bringing this up.

County Executive PJ Wendel, who was at the meeting, will direct the county’s Department of Public Facilities to review the work needed, develop a plan and then return with a projected budget.


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