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Rutland Hollow Cemetery one of several Black River man helps to restore

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BLACK RIVER — Look closely, and you will see pennies and quarters cemented into several of the foundations of grave markers at Rutland Hollow Cemetery.

The mementos are badges of honor for the deceased who rest here off Middleton Road among the rolling hills near the intersection with Rutland Hollow Road. But another honor could be reserved for the person who placed those coins.

“The stones I put up, I always give them a penny,” said Michael J. Hinckley, 76.

He has deposited 84 pennies. But five restored foundations have earned quarters, with the face of George Washington facing up. Those coins are reserved for Revolutionary War veterans. There are five buried in the cemetery, Mr. Hinckley said.

To find evidence of them was no easy task. Mr. Hinckley, Black River, began renovating the Rutland Hollow Cemetery about five years ago after a series of false starts by community service groups in the area.

The cemetery in the town of Rutland contains the graves of the Andrews, Clarks, Crosses, Eddys, Graves, Middletons, Misers, Scotts and Wilsons — some of the town’s first settlers. Many of the town’s roads are named after those families. The earliest burial was in 1802 and the latest was in 1901, Mr. Hinckley said.

When Mr. Hinckley first arrived at the cemetery, its entrance was blocked by brambles, branches, trash and even TVs and a toilet. Once he cleared a path to the actual gravesites, which are uphill from the entrance off Middleton Road, he faced a tangle of stubborn weeds such as buckthorn. The calling cards of the shrubs are still evident — small stumps dotting the cemetery seem determined to trip up visitors.

Mr. Hinckley worked inches at a time, often on his hands and knees, to take back the cemetery, where toppled stones were discovered.

“It was a jungle,” he said.

But the cemetery was no match for Mr. Hinckley, who brought lots of experience to such tasks. He’s been working on cemeteries since he retired as a corrections officer in 2000. Before that, he worked for 25 years at the Crowley milk plant in LaFargeville.

“I came over here because I had run out of cemeteries,” Mr. Hinckley said. “I’m only a mile and a half away. I can buzz up here, get my cemetery fix and go back home.”

The first cemeteries he tackled for restoration are all in Cape Vincent, where he was “conceived, born and raised.” In that village, he spruced up Riverside Cemetery, St. John Episcopal Church cemetery and Market Street Cemetery. He then moved on to Corbins Corners Baptist Cemetery in Depauville.

In December, the Cape Vincent Chamber of Commerce selected Mr. Hinckley as its citizen of the month.

“It’s a hobby,” Mr. Hinckley, a man with an easy laugh and a warm smile, said earlier this month at the cemetery. “It’s like I’m an artist. My work is never done.”

Mr. Hinckley has reason to share his good mood with others. Like the cemeteries he is saving, the man also feels regenerated.

“I’ve been sober for 37 years,” said the steadfast believer in Alcoholics Anonymous.

“I was close to death,” he said. “That’s why I appreciate life so much.”

In 2003, he learned he had prostate cancer.

“I got cured of that, so I get a double whammy when I’m happy,” Mr. Hinckley said.

For nearly two years, Mr. Hinckley had to limit his work because of a sore shoulder. In October, he had rotator cuff surgery and is slowly recovering his shoulder strength.


Mr. Hinckley estimates there are approximately 300 people buried at Middleton Road Cemetery. The five Revolutionary War veterans buried there are John Ellis, who died in 1827, Andrew Middleton, who died in 1835, Arunah Otis, who died in 1833, John Eddy who died in 1839 and Samuel Sargent, who died in 1830.

According to Times files, there are also three veterans of the War of 1812 buried there: Elisha Clark, Silas Phillips and James Woodward,

Mr. Hinckley said that at each graveyard he’s worked at, he has a “favorite” resident. While showing a visitor around, he stops at the grave of Mrs. Elizabeth Norris, who died on Aug. 29, 1884, at the age of 81. Her grave is Mr. Hinckley’s favorite at Rutland Hollow Road Cemetery.

“Why, I don’t know,” he said.

Maybe it’s the Bible inscription on her marker, still faintly visible: “The trump(et) shall sound, the dead shall rise.”

“I kind of like working with her,” Mr. Hinckley said. “She was a mess with trees that fell over her. But I got a foundation under her now and she’ll never move for another 200 years or so.”

Setting the foundations in cement and lifting the headstones and other memorials takes lots of strength and Mr. Hinckley is often assisted with such tasks by town of Rutland highway department employees, who also do other work, such as mowing, at the cemetery.

“Mike has a passion for cleaning up cemeteries,” said town of Rutland supervisor Gary D. Eddy. He said the Rutland Hollow site was in “shambles” before Mr. Hinckley began work on it.

“He took it upon himself to kind of lead the charge there in cooperation with town highway crews,” Mr. Eddy said. “His efforts are tremendous.”

James C. Bauter, third vice president of the Black River American Legion, also assists Mr. Hinckley. He lives nearby and stopped by the cemetery when he saw Mr. Hinckley talking to his visitor a few weeks ago.

“I’m the watchdog,” said Mr. Bauter. “He’s doing a great job. I help him out every once in a while.”

Mr. Bauter also procured the American flag at the cemetery, which flies from the pole that Mr. Hinckley installed shortly after he began working at the site.

a place for reflection

Once he cleared all the buckthorn and other weeds out, Mr. Hinckley uncovered outlines of footpaths — worn down by several generations — that go to different points of the cemetery. He theorized that at one time, the site resembled an English garden. He pointed out three craggly maple trees with impressive girth that were just starting to bud once again over the many revived memorials. He said a tree expert told him they are “witness trees.”

“They witnessed all these cemetery diggings” he said.

Most days, there are no witnesses as Mr. Hinckley comes to the cemetery to work, which he said is a couple of days a week. For the most part, the only sounds at the secluded site are birds and the gentle flapping of the American flag.

“Once I get through the honey-do list at home, I take off and come up here,” said Mr. Hinckley, who is married to Joanne E. (Beams) Hinckley, who has been a registered nurse at Samaritan Medical Center since 1979.

Mr. Hinckley often enjoys lunch on one of the benches he made and installed around the cemetery. He also has been known to nap there; an easy sleep stoked by a sense of accomplishment.

“You know when it says on a lot of stones, ‘Gone but not forgotten?’” Mr. Hinckley tells his visitor. “If one person remembers them, they are not forgotten.”

For himself, Mr. Hinckley has his headstone in place and ready for him at Riverside Cemetery in Cape Vincent. It has the AA symbol with its slogan: “Unity. Service. Recovery.”

“Somebody will look at my tombstone and go, ‘I know what that means,’” he said.

But now, he has work to do.

“That’s the fun part of it,” he said. “To help somebody out that you don’t know and never will know — until you get to heaven.”

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