By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A new group of volunteers has emerged to help take care of the historic Hilldale Cemetery, after a series of complaints from the public about conditions there.
The volunteers include a landscaper and an excavating company, City Councilor Thomas Sullivan said.
The City Council took up the dilapidated state of the private cemetery last month at the request of several residents. Councilors and residents who visited the cemetery recently used words such as deplorable, disgraceful and embarrassing to describe the site.
Thomas Spitalere, chairman of the cemetery’s Board of Trustees, said the local landscaping company Chris’ Property Maintenance recently volunteered to cut grass at the burial ground.
Another volunteer, Steve Allen of Allen Excavation, has been fixing damaged and toppled gravestones, Spitalere said.
“We had it looking really good at the beginning of summer, but then it went down hill due to a lack of money,” Spitalere said. “But thanks to a whole new group of volunteers who read about our problems in the paper, we are getting back to where we want it to be.”
Sullivan said the city is pitching in by repairing a stone and wooden wall near the cemetery entrance and has offered to take over maintenance of a portion of the site where about 400 Civil War soldiers are buried.
Sullivan also said Mayor James Fiorentini contacted the Essex County Sheriff’s Department about using work release prisoners for a major cleanup of the property once or twice a year.
“For the moment, all is good,” Sullivan said. “But I fear the problems will come back, as they have before, if we don’t keep a close eye on it. They lack money to hire staff or contractors to maintain it, but I want us to work with the board to bring it back to what it should be.”
Sullivan said Spitalere has offered to update the council next month on efforts to improve the site.
Spitalere said a lack of money is the main reason his board has struggled to keep the property in better condition. He said that since taking charge of the cemetery in 2009, he and other volunteers have spent countless hours mowing the grass, picking up trash, removing brush and downed tree limbs, and working to clear the central lawn area as a future burial site.
The cemetery has also been the target of vandals and illegal dumpers in recent years. The trustees have had to combat damage from fires that were intentionally set and damaged gravestones, fence posts that were spray-painted, toppled headstones, and trespassing by riders of dirt bikes and other recreational vehicles, which tear up grassy areas.
Spitalere said his board is developing an area on the property to sell new burial plots. That would give the trustees money to take better care of the grounds, he said, adding he expects the new section to be ready by late fall.