“Cemetery Friends”

“Let me speak of this quiet grave-yard with all due reverence, for I owe it amends for the heedlessness of my boyish days. I blush to acknowledge the thoughtless frolic with which, in company of whipsters, I have sported within its sacred bounds during intervals of worship; chasing butterflies, plucking wild flowers, or vieing with each other who could leap over the tallest tomb-stones; until checked by the stern voice of the sexton.”

From Washington Irving, quoted in Henry Steiner’s, The Historically Annotated Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Stephanie & Greg – Cemetery Friends

Stephanie calls us “Cemetery Friends”. I never thought of it that way, but we do seem to spend more time together in the Old Dutch Burying Ground than any of our other church activities. And while greeting visitors in a grave yard isn’t your typical church calling, it is in Sleepy Hollow. Unlike our famous Author whose imagination brought us the quintessential American ghost story, along with his raucous boyhood friends who “sported” within these walls, you will not find us leap frogging over headstones – but chasing butterflies is another matter. Like everyone else whose home has become a refuge from COVID19, I was looking forward to spending time with my Cemetery Friends this October, not just for the usual Legend/Headless Horseman merriment, but for a safe, fresh-air setting to spend time with some very special people who help keep the history of this place alive.

COVID19 has allowed us to step back from the annual Old Dutch Fest that serves thousands of Washington Irving and Legend of Sleepy Hollow fans each October. And while a few of us are still passing out self-guided walking tours and scavenger hunts each weekend, the historic burying ground is a quieter place. Maybe that’s a good thing. It allows visitors to really take in the history, not just the legend. It’s also allowed the church to do some much needed maintenance.

Which brings me to another Cemetery Friend – Robert Carpenter. Bob’s talented craftsmanship is on display in the church and burying ground. Not only does he help maintain the historic headstones, he also carved the organ screen of the Fritz Noack Tracker organ which was installed in 1998. The screen displays symbols associated with the Dutch settlement of the area: beaver, wheat, and the colonial soul effigy, along with the trade marks of Frederick Philipse and his son Adolphe Philipse. Once upon a time, I asked Bob what the owls represented and he said they were his homage to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

You can just make out the VF and AP marks that represent Frederick Philipse and his son Adolphe, across the top pipes. The sheaves of wheat in the center represent the primary crop in the early settlement. Tarrytown is derived from the Dutch word for wheat. At the bottom you can see the beaver, owls, and a soul effigy which is surrounded by stylized phoenix birds representing America rising from the ashes of the Revolution. Photo: Deb McCue

Bob is also responsible for repairing and reseating the long lost headstone of Frederick Van Wart, and he carved the recently installed stone for Hulda of Bohemia. Click on the links for their stories.

Right now Bob’s work is centered around protecting the red sandstone headstones from water damage that causes the front of the headstones to “shell” or slide off the stone. One of the most visited headstones in the burying ground is that of Catriena Ecker Van Tessel, whom you may know as Katrina Van Tassel of The Legend. Perhaps young Washington Irving caught a glance at her name as he was making mischief with the lads back in 1798.

Bob is applying a silicon preparation to the top of the headstone to prevent water from penetrating the stone. Photo: Stephanie O’Dea

Catriena’s stone, liker her husband Petrus’, is in Latin, English, and Dutch. They are fine examples of the work of carver Solomon Brewer. When compared side by side, Catriena’s stone is more weather worn than her husband’s. I can’t help but think that stone rubbings over the centuries may have aided in the damage. This practice is no longer permitted because of fragile nature of the stones.

Petrus Van Tessel Photo: Deb McCue

The first time I ever saw Jeff Gargano was about two weeks after he was installed as the pastor. My husband and I came to the Old Dutch Church for an organ concert. Jeff was unloading folding chairs from the back of his truck to accommodate the overflow attendance on a crisp, colorful October day. Chairs were brought up from the Tarrytown church to provide more seating. More than ten years later our pastor is still hauling, chopping, and digging up stuff. Stephanie stole a picture of him digging out the remains of an old tree trunk so that Bob could recover and repair a lost headstone. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t in Pastor Jeff’s job description.

Pastor Jeff Gargano Photo: Stephanie O’Dea

Here Bob has set the recovered stone upright again on its foundation.

Photo: Stephanie O’Dea

Cemetery Friend Maria Canales and her family have volunteered many hours at the Old Dutch Fest and in the burying ground. A member of Consistory, she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. This fall Maria can be found raking, weeding, and hauling away broken branches and tree limbs while answering questions from passersby. John Chow, another member of the church, has spent hours quietly cleaning the ancient stones and monuments to further aid in their preservation.

Maria without her rake and garden gloves.

What would an old church burying ground be without a sexton? Traditionally, the sexton’s job was caretaker of church and churchyard. He was the bell-ringer and often the grave digger. Unlike the young Washington Irving’s experience, you won’t find a “stern voice” coming from our sexton, John Paine, who can be found tidying up, replacing the bee wax candles that provide the only night-time illumination in the Old Dutch Church, and ringing the 1685 bronze bell on important occasions. A proud Navy Vet himself, John feels a close kinship with the 79 veterans of the American Revolution at rest in our burying ground. We don’t make him open the graves for new burials though, we leave that to another Cemetery Friend, Jim Logan, Superintendent of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, our neighbor to North where Washington Irving and his family are laid to rest.

John Paine, Sexton

During “regular” October activities, John switches hats to be house manager for Historic Hudson Valley’s performances of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, including the performances by story-teller and musician Jim Keyes. The “House” is dark this season due to the pandemic. For the first time since the American Revolution, the church had to close its doors to worshippers and visitors. Our neighbor Historic Hudson Valley had to pull back much of its Legend related programming. But I’m still very happy to include Jim and his wife Carla in this little tribute to Cemetery Friends. I met them here a few years ago and their knowledge of local history and musical talent entertain and inspire visitors to the Old Dutch and Historic Hudson Valley sites.

Carla and Keyes up in the choir loft of the Old Dutch Church
getting that colonial pony-tail just right.
Jim in action during a telling of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Photo: Janie Couch-Allen

Even though its been relatively quiet this year at the Old Dutch, compared to previous Octobers, the work still continues to preserve, restore, repair and celebrate this iconic church and burying ground. Many of the restoration projects here are funded by our “original” Cemetery Friends – The Friends of the Old Dutch Church. Events like the Annual Old Dutch Fest, which relies on the volunteers from our church community and friends, also bring in revenue that makes this work possible. This winter work will proceed to repair and refinish the floor and fix the 1837 windows.

We look forward to welcoming you back next year. If you would like to support the restoration work at the Old Dutch Church you can click on the Donation button of the church website, select an amount, choose “other” and write in Old Dutch Church, or you can send a check to the address below:

PO BOX 832

See you next year!

Photo: Janie Couch-Allen


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