CONWAY, Mass. — Buried within nine cemeteries across Conway’s rolling hills and roaring brooks are hundreds of people and countless lives.
One Conway man, Peter Freisem, has volunteered to find out who these people are — whether they are fallen American Revolutionary War soldiers or small children plagued with 17th century diseases.
With approval from the Historic Commission, Freisem will inventory the nine cemeteries in town, starting with a list compiled in 1951 to 1952 by a Mrs. Max Lederer of Southampton. The 218-page list contains the information of people buried in Conway dating to the town’s incorporation in 1762 to 1952. However, it has not been maintained in the last 60 years.
Freisem, a history enthusiast, volunteered for the job of updating the town’s inventory.
“Whether it was because of a lack of funds or interest, no one volunteered up until now to go into the cemeteries and see what additional burials have been made since 1952,” Freisem said as he combed through the 60-year old list.
Freisem, the maker of Cricket Hill Jams sold at local farmers markets, will spend the next year walking through every cemetery, gathering the names of people engraved on gravestones and tracing their history. The nine cemeteries are Howland, Boyden, Cricket Hill, South Park, Polland, Maynard, Pumpkin Hollow, Pine Grove and North Shirkshire cemeteries.
In Howland Cemetery, standing above three small gravestones marking three young siblings who died within a week of each other, Freisem realizes the history beneath his feet.
“This is one of the interesting things about doing a project like this. I think about how the parents felt to lose three children in a week. That’s the kind of thing that makes it interesting to think about the lives the people had,” remarked Freisem.
As he examines the grave sites, Freisem plans to note whether a person is a veteran and the war he fought in.
This month, Freisem already discovered a famous playwright, Archibald MacLeish, at the Pine Grove Cemetery and artist Lester Stevens at the Cricket Hill Cemetery.
At Howland Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Conway, Freisem observes the gravestones sprawling before him. He notes how many stones are difficult to read and many have been broken, tipped over and knocked down throughout the hundreds of years. Once he completes the inventory, Freisem plans to see if the town can fund the gravestones’ repairs.
What sparked Freisem’s interest in the job is his interest in genealogy and history.
“Every day I have to drive by one of the older cemeteries in town, the Pumpkin Hollow Cemetery. It made me think about it,” Freisem said.
Freisem also ran a landscaping business, Roaring Brook Excavation, for one year, in which he mowed most of the Conway cemeteries. He eventually became familiar with the old gravestones, noting a number of American Revolutionary War soldiers buried in town.
He is also the son of a history teacher and reference librarian.
“I can remember when we went places, my father would tell us history stories about the area we were in,” Freisem recalled.
Although he is not a Conway native, Freisem has been in town since his mother and stepfather came in 1975. Freisem, who grew up in Amherst, moved permanently to town in 1994. The small family connection Freisem does have is to his grandfather’s foster family, who lived in Conway from 1780 to 1800.
Over the winter, Freisem will transcribe the 1762-1952 list. In the spring, he will do the field work to verify the information and then he will start adding to it.