Byram Resident Urges Town to Adopt a Plan to Protect Cemetery Stones, Preserve History

Byram resident Alex Popp, a local 5th grade teacher, has offered walking tours of the historic cemeteries in Byram located at the top of a hill overlooking Byram Harbor and Long Island Sound, and on Tuesday, GFP took him up on his offer.

On a walking tour of the historic cemeteries in Byram, Alex Popp shows Katherine LoBalbo, chair of the RTM Parks & Rec committee a binder created by Jeffrey Bingham Mead that documents locations, names and dates in the historic Byram Cemetery. May 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

To be specific, there are three cemeteries: the larger Byram Cemetery, the smaller Lyon Cemetery off to the side, and the African-American Cemetery, historically called the Colored Cemetery.

The Colored Cemetery was created by the Lyon family as a sacred burial ground for their slaves, ex-slave, and slave descendants to rest in peace. But this cemetery, located down the hill from the Byram and Lyon Cemeteries, was the subject of much controversy until in 2018 stipulation from State Superior Court settled the matter.

Before the stipulation, there had been no clear ownership of the three cemeteries, and they benefited from no formal protection.

Per the stipulation, the town of Greenwich officially became the owner of all three cemeteries. Also per the agreement the town conveyed by quitclaim a 14 ft wide driveway to the plaintiffs, the Stewarts,who have since sold their property. Also, per the stipulation, the town removed boulders on the cemetery, and built a low stone wall to indicate the boundary between the Stewart property and town owned cemetery. The town was allowed to use existing stones found on the property to construct the wall. This work has been done.

Lastly, per the stipulation the town was required to pay for a plaque commemorating the Byram African-American cemetery and place it either on the stone wall or a boulder.

That has yet to happen, but Mr. Popp said he believed it was in the works.

That is just one of Popp’s concerns.

During the walking tour, he said that while the town’s Parks & Rec Dept does mow the cemetery and remove leaves in the fall, he and his daughter Grace have also been mowing and recently cleared a thicket that had grown over headstones.

In fact, there is a history of volunteers tending to the cemeteries. Back in 2016, GFP interviewed Carolyn Antonik who lived in the historic James Lyon house c 1750, adjacent to the cemeteries. She said her husband Chris, who died in January 29, 2015, had mowed and tended the cemeteries for 30 years.

In fact, in the summer of 2016, Mrs. Antonik appeared before the Board of Selectmen to say that since her husband had died, the weeds in the cemetery had grown 3 ft tall.

From there the topic of ownership and responsibility took off.

Carolyn Antonik died in December 2107.

This week Mr. Popp said the woman who owns the house that replaced the Antoniks’ James Lyon House paid for a crew to mow it one or twice. Then Popp started bringing over his own mower.

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Marker on the James Lyon House c.1750. That house, adjacent to the historic cemeteries, has been demolished and replaced. July 11, 2016. Photo: Leslie Yager
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Carolyn Antonik in the back yard of James Lyon House c 1750 in Byram. July 2016. Credit: Leslie Yager
View north (away from water) of historic Byram Cemetery and Lyon Cemetery. At left is new house that replaced James Lyon House c1750, previously home to Carolyn and Chris Antonik. May 31, 2022 Photo Leslie Yager

In the process he has witnessed how nature and gravity take a toll on the headstones. He surmises some stones may already have been swallowed by the earth and would like to know the cost of ground penetrating radar to answer that question.

Moreover, he’d like the town to put in place a plan for care of the cemetery going forward.

In particular, he’d like to see a line in the town budget.

“Even if it’s just $100, then you know you have a place for it in the budget every year,” Popp said. “A lot of people don’t even know about (the cemetery).”

Popp said another part of an ongoing care plan might deal with what he called double stones that appear to be propped against each other to hold them up.

“There are probably a half a dozen stones that are in critical need of action within the next three months,” Popp said, pointing to stones that have tipped over or are vanishing as the earth grows over them.

“Do we allow that?” he asked. “If they say yes, then I’m good with that, but there’s no plan. They can’t be champions of history, conservation and preservation without thinking about some of the issues down here. Maybe they need to take a visit. They’ve had four years since the stipulation in August 2018 that resulted in the town taking ownership.”

Popp said like to see the stones preserved, and if possible restored.

He said the HDC had a cemetery committee that did extensive deed research.

He said he’d like the town to apply for grant money to preserve the stones.

“It is my hope that the Town, with all its departments, committees, and commissions, recognizes the responsibilities of owning the property, per Connecticut Superior Court Order and creates a clear vision of how to protect and preserve the graveyard for future generations,” Popp said. “Like, what do you do if one of (the headstones) falls? You need a plan for that, including stone maintenance.”

Popp said he frequently speaks with descendants of those buried in the cemetery, and he said they are in favor of picking up fallen stones and cleaning off lichen, though there may others of the opinion that nature should run be allowed to run its course.

“My intention is to get it on the town’s radar,” Mr. Popp said, adding he hoped the topic might be on this week’s Conservation Commission meeting agenda.

“It’s a town owned property. The town has got to do something with it,” he said. “They need a long term preservation plan. You don’t want to lose any of its history. In the past 20 years, there is writing on stones you can no longer read.”

Alex Popp, a Byram resident, said he and his daughter Grace had been mowing the historic cemetery in Byram regularly. May 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager
Alex Popp pointed out heavy cemetery markers that fall are eventually swallowed into the earth. May 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager
Cemetery marker in foreground was cleaned of Lichen, while the one behind it has not been cleaned and writing is difficult to discern. May 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager
The town recently planted an Oak sapling (at left) in the historic Byram Cemetery. In the foreground is a stump of a tree that fell over in a storm. May 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager
The historic Byram Cemetery is positioned on a unique vantage point overlooking Long Island Sound. May 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

See also:

PHOTOS: Carolyn Antonik – Passing on the Love for Byram’s Beautiful Cemeteries July 17, 2016

Cousins Who Met through Want Historic Black Cemetery in Byram Protected, Preserved and Interpreted September 2016