Restoring historic cemeteries is not usually a hot-button issue. It became one during the August 6 East Hampton Town Board meeting.
Averill Geus is the East Hampton Town historian, a non-paying position. The town is required, under New York State law, to appoint a town historian every year, the only state in the nation that has that requirement. It has been Gues’s job for the last few years.
The town had circulated a press release dated August 2 titled “Restoration of the Historic Colonial Cemetery on Old Northwest Road.”
The release begins: “This burying ground preserves the memorials of the local Terry and Van Scoy families, with stones dating from 1792 to 1884. Nineteen headstones and footstones survive in all, including that of a Revolutionary War patriot, and a rare family obelisk cast in zinc. The restoration project will preserve the priceless and unique family records that are carved on the stones.” The release states that the project would take about three days, and would be led by Burying Ground Preservation Group, Inc, which is run by three East End historians, Zach Studenroth, Kurt Kahofer, and Joel Snodgrass. The project is being shepherded by Councilman David Lys.
In the public portion of the board meeting, Geus read a letter from her late husband, Edwin Lewis Geus, which she said he wrote before his passing earlier this year. In it, he decried the condition of the cemetery, writing that it suffered from years of neglect.
“I was rather surprised to learn that Mr. Lys has taken it upon himself to hire some people to go in and redo the cemetery,” Geus said.
Geus continued, saying that Lys “has absolutely no interest” in the cemetery, because “he has no ancestors planted there.” She said she was a descendant of the Van Scoy family. Her family name before she married was Dayton, a name that stretches back in East Hampton history for centuries.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc encouraged Geus to bring her remarks to a conclusion. Geus went on, attacking the group hired to do the work. “I am responsible for this,” she claimed, meaning that, as town historian, she should be the one making those decisions, although the guidelines laid out in the state law creating her position do not mention the word “cemetery” once, though it does mention monuments. “You have hired a couple of amateurs,” Geus said, adding that the work done by the Burying Ground Preservation Group in Southampton cemeteries made the tombstones look like “a row of brightly polished teeth.”
Lys is active in expanding hiking trails in the town, including by the cemetery in question. Geus said, “I don’t think descendants want their ancestors tromped on by hikers and bicyclers and heavens knows what.”
“I don’t know about you, Peter,” Geus said to the supervisor. “Because I have never been able to find your connection.”
“I’m happy to provide my genealogy if you are interested,” Van Scoyoc said.
“Ok. Are you related to Peter?” she challenged, referring to the buried Van Scoy. “No. I’m related to Cornelius,” the supervisor answered. “Well, that’s not Isaac,” Geus said.
“Isaac was Cornelius’s son. So, yes, I am related.”
After Geus concluded, Van Scoyoc gave his overview of the issue, adding that the Northwest cemetery is one of many throughout the town, and commended Lys for “taking the initiative to follow through.”
Van Scoyoc concluded, “Without that kind of action, we will lose all of them.”