NORTH ADAMS - The first efforts to clean out and repair the leaning, broken gravestones at Hillside Cemetery were under way Saturday, as a group of 40 students from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts surveyed headstones and cleared brush from the cemetery's northernmost point.
The oldest municipal cemetery was one of two sites where students were volunteering their time as part of the state university's annual Fall Day of Service, a community service project.
"We're going to make this a permanent site for the Community Day of Service," Glenn Maloney, of Develop North Adams, said. Develop North Adams and its offshoot group, North Adams Ideas, work in tandem with MCLA's Center for Service and Citizenship, which organizes the community day.
Roger Eurbin, a local veteran spearheading the efforts to repair the headstones and clear away brush that has hidden some of the cemetery's graves, expressed his gratitude for the help as the students arrived.
"I really, really appreciate that you folks have showed up. You don't know how much it means," he said. "This is one of the oldest cemeteries in this part of the state and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We have veterans buried here who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the CivilWar, the Spanish American War and World War I. There's over 250 veterans from the Civil War alone.
Eurbin explained that while one crew would be working to reclaim graves that had disappeared over the years as trees had overgrown the cemetery, another group would be surveying the headstones with him, cataloging which ones have been damaged, are broken or leaning.
"There are over 150 gravestones that are down just on the north side," he said.
Spencer Moser, coordinator of MCLA's Center for Service and Citizenship, said about 100 students were volunteering between two sites - one being the cemetery and the other being at the campus, where volunteers were planting some 500 flower bulbs.
"I'm really excited to see how things turn out today," he said. "Instead of having 10 sites, as we traditionally do, we feel it is exciting to have students at two sites, where they'll be able to see what a difference they can make in four hours."
He added, "We've been talking about the cemetery for some time now. A lot of our students drive by this cemetery, but they don't pay attention to it. Today's a way to connect them with an important piece of the heritage of North Adams."
For many of the students, it was the first time they'd ever stepped foot in Hillside Cemetery.
"The first time I came to North Adams, I noticed this cemetery and I've always wanted to photograph it," said Ben Mancino, a junior from Troy, N.Y., who was taking photographs for the student newspaper, The Beacon. "I'm very excited to have a chance to come here."
Alyssa Contey, a sophomore from Newbury, said that before volunteering to help out, she "didn't even know it existed."
"It's very beautiful," she said, as she used a small saw to cut away a small tree. "I volunteered because I wanted to help the community. Obviously this place is significant- it has so many veterans from so many different wars."
Peter Scattareggia, a junior from Troy, N.Y., said he and his friends traditionally help out when needed.
"We do a lot of stuff with Spencer," he said. "I think this is going to make everything look better. If people still come here to visit the graveyard, they'll be able to go in further. I think it will be better for everybody."
Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, who joined the students in dragging trees down from the top of what is referred to as "cardiac hill," credited Eurbin as the momentum behind the clean up.
"Roger began coming to City Council meetings and speaking about the neglect here - fallen stones, brush and everything else. I had him up in my office and we talked about a plan," he said. "He's created maps, plotted it out into sectors, and in a sense, making it a less daunting task. Roger really is the driver of what you're seeing here today."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email email@example.com.