Village’s History Lurks In West Harwich Cemeteries

By: Russ Allen

An historic gravestone in Pine Grove Cemetery. RUSS ALLEN PHOTO

WEST HARWICH When historian Duncan Berry heard the West Harwich Baptist Church was for sale, he worried that the history of the church might be lost, and along with it, the history of the village and his own family. He recently decided to share some of that history in a public tour of the church cemetery, poring over old names and all-but-forgotten stories.

Suffering from low attendance worsened by the pandemic, the church is considered a centerpiece of West Harwich village. Voters recently approved a zoning amendment to preserve the historic character of a stretch of Route 28 as part of a Barnstable County-designated District of Critical Planning Concern. Berry and others have long been active in efforts to preserve the heritage of a part of Harwich which many felt had been neglected, especially the residences of Captain’s Row, some of which are still standing but threatened. In August of 2019, at an event postponed due to the July tornadoes, Berry spoke at the installation of the West Harwich Postmistress, reminding his listeners of the village’s rich history.

Now by using the stories of those buried in the nearby Pine Grove Cemetery as his resource he wanted to share the history of a church that was constituted in 1747, the same year as the founding of the First Congregational Society in Harwich Center. Its two original buildings were located near the North Harwich cemetery, but in 1828 the second building was torn down and rebuilt at the current site in West Harwich, only to be replaced in 1879 by the current edifice housing the First Baptist Church of West Harwich‘s congregation. Behind that facility is the church’s cemetery and then the Town’s Pine Grove Cemetery.

On Oct. 3, under the sponsorship of the Harwich Historical Society, Berry led a group tour of the cemetery that included Brooks Academy Museum Director Marie Kesten Zahn and town Cemetery Administrator Robbin Kelley. They spent an hour learning about some of the people interred there, and how they contribute to the story of West Harwich and its Baptist Church.

During this “illustrated tour,” which made use of the historical society’s vast collection of digitized photographs and other sources, Berry presented a cross section of the village’s more colorful and historically significant individuals, families, and institutions. Beginning with the Rev. James Barnaby, who served as the church’s pastor for some 40 years, Berry discussed people with very familiar Cape Cod names such as Nickerson, Eldridge, Lothrop, Chase, Snow, and Doane, including some individuals not actually buried here.

Toward the end of the tour, Berry turned to the graves that bear his own surname, citing especially a former sea captain – one of several buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery – who died on a voyage back from the Orient. It then became the responsibility of his first mate to return ship and crew safely home and the captain’s body to Harwich for burial. That first mate was the captain’s own teenage son.

According to Berry, there are more than 800 people buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery, too many for an hour-long visit, so Berry spoke about some of the most notable. The most famous of those buried or memorialized in the Pine Grove Cemetery may be Caleb Chase, who with his partner James Solomon Sanborn in 1862 formed the Chase and Sanborn Coffee Company, a brand that still exists. When Chase died, his will provided a significant financial gift to each of his employees, which his competitors fought in court to stop as a bad precedent. The court decided in their favor, but Sanborn “cut the checks anyway.”

Berry believes that many of those buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery were determined, level-headed, realistic entrepreneurs who were creative in response to changing situations while compassionate in their dealings with others. They were multifaceted and successful in their business practices, served their communities in various capacities, and made long-lasting contributions to the betterment of society.

The Harwich Cemetery Department, which maintains 14 town-owned cemeteries that span 45 acres, has an ongoing plan for repairs and improvements. One such project includes the repair of the Job Chase Jr. obelisk, which now lies on its side at the Pine Grove Cemetery.

Pine Grove Cemetery Association was founded on Feb. 3, 1866 but its earliest grave is from 1813, Kelley said. It is speculated that the Pine Grove Cemetery was started after the nearby Baptist Church Cemetery was filled, and that some of the graves have been moved from the church cemetery into Pine Grove. 

The original founding board members from 1866 were Isiah Chase and Erastus Chase, and trustees included Alfred Chase, Nehemiah Doane Kelley, and James Berry.   When the Pine Grove Cemetery Association was no longer able to care for the cemetery it was signed over to the Town of Harwich, which assumed ownership in 2006.

“Memorials throughout all the town’s cemeteries need maintenance and restoration.,” Kelley said. “The cemetery department’s overall goal is preservation and stabilization to prevent future damage at these historic burying grounds.  Caring for historic gravestones must be done by those trained in proper cleaning and preservation techniques,” she said. The various types of stones – slate, marble, sandstone, limestone and soapstone – each require different techniques for cleaning and removing lichens and other biological growths.

In some cases, surviving family members assume responsibility for their ancestors’ graves. When the gravestone for one of his relatives was stolen, Berry and his brother took it upon themselves to obtain a replacement. They also plan to erect a memorial stone on the currently unmarked grave of another family member.