Project sheds light on history

Stefan Foster holds a copy of his book, ‘Pining for the Past: Little Merrit’s Tomb and the Beardsley Cemetery.’

In 1865, 8-year-old Merrit Beardsley of Oxford succumbed to a “feverish sickness.” Before dying, he asked his father to place a window in his grave because he feared the dark. The bereaved father honored his son’s poignant request. But since then, the grave had fallen into disrepair, and the window on Little Merrit’s tomb had been broken. 

Fascination with this piece of Chenango County history has made a busy man of Stefan Foster, a 16-year-old Unadilla Valley Central School senior. Over the last 18 months, he has seen to the repair of the window in Merrit’s grave, the overall cleanup of the Beardsley cemetery, and penned his first book, “Pining for the Past: Little Merrit’s Tomb and the Beardsley Cemetery.” 

Foster did not undertake the book or the cemetery restoration as a school assignment or civic project, but as labor of love. For years, the story had deeply affected him, he said — in part because he was close to Merrit’s age when he first heard it from his parents. 

It was the neglect of the little boy’s gravesite set him into action, Foster recalled.

“At first, I just wanted to fix the window,” Foster said.

One thing led to another, and soon Foster was embarked on a cleanup of the entire cemetery, also known as the Miller Cemetery, on county Route 3 outside of Oxford. At the urging of Vicky House, historian for the town and village of Oxford, he has solicited its recognition on the state Registry of National Historic Places.

Foster’s efforts began in the summer of 2013, when he repaired a stone wall, moved piles of debris, weeded, raked, cut down limbs and set some of the stones aright. He also planted perennials and ground cover, paid for from his own pocket.

Other parties stepped up to help. The town of Oxford footed the bill for replacement of the broken window. Its highway department removed debris from the site. Kurt Riegel, Tina Pabst and Dale Utter of One Stone at a Time, a Bainbridge enterprise that restores gravestones, also offered significant help, Foster said.

Through his work, Foster developed some historical awareness about 19th-century graveyards. He asked the town to cease mowing the cemetery because mechanical mowing and weeding was causing damage to the stones. To restore the site’s original ambience, Foster planted 300 heritage myrtles and approximately 100 lily of the valley, donated by Star Bassett of New Berlin, who learned of the project through the Facebook page Foster established.

“So now when you visit the cemetery you’ll be immersed in ferns & a true heritage atmosphere,” Foster wrote on Facebook.

One aspect of historical authenticity Foster did not duplicate was the choice of material for the tomb’s window. By using acrylic glass instead of conventional glass, Foster said he hopes to reduce damage incurred from nature or vandalism. With Riegel, he is now working to design a window that is more historically accurate.

Besides help with the cemetery cleanup, the town of Oxford also loaned Foster $1,000 to jump-start his book. Sales so far have allowed him to repay the town in full, and future income from the book will be directed back to maintenance of the cemetery and the tomb. Other financial support came from the Oxford’s Rotary and Lions clubs, and Kathleen Beardsley of Homer.

Foster’s book contains archival news articles, photos and maps. Community reflections on the story appear in the book’s final section, “Sentiments of Little Merrit’s Tomb.”

Since the start of his project, Foster said, people have placed flowers and toys at Merrit’s grave. He is pleased to note a contrast between past neglect or abuse, and the more recent outpouring of support for the site.

“Times are changing,” he wrote on Facebook. “Instead of a broken window we’re finding flower arrangements.” 

With his project nearing completion by the end of summer, Foster said he feels gratified.

“I’m now reassured that he’s been brought back to light. The next generations will have an appreciation and understanding of him,” Foster said.

Besides Made in Chenango, the book is also available in Norwich at Solstice, A Cut Above, Seasons, and the Chenango County Historical Society Museum. In Oxford, it may be found at Bartle’s and ES Graphix. It is also available on eBay.

Anyone wishing to support the project through a monetary donation may write a check to the Town of Oxford and send it care of Stefan Foster, 136 Graef Road, Norwich, NY 13825. 

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