Jersey Reflections: Cemetery Clues

By: Vince Farinaccio

The abandoned cemetery nearly cleaned up by volunteers. Photo courtesy of Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society Facebook page.

In some circumstances, history can be regarded in the same light as the best writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—a detective tale of the highest order—filled with unexpected turns and eye-opening evidence. A recent example is a cleanup project over the past month by the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society (VHAS) at the Elwyn-owned Training School at Vineland, which began its life as the New Jersey Home for the Education and Care of Feebleminded Children in 1888 when it relocated from Millville. 

The institution underwent a series of name changes that included the New Jersey Training School and the American Institute for Mental Studies before arriving at its current title. And over the decades, rumors circulated about an abandoned cemetery on its grounds. 

In early May, VHAS curator Patricia Martinelli and Board of Trustees Vice President Jack Carr paid a visit to the Elwyn property to photograph the buildings. “Jack has been very conscientious about trying to photograph as many historical buildings in Vineland as he can, both private homes and public,” said Martinelli.   

While there, they inquired about the cemetery and were directed to a clump of trees near the southern end of the property where they found an area surrounded by a cast iron fence. “We were just stunned,” Martinelli said. “It was a lot larger than we expected it to be. At that point in time, we estimated there were about 70 graves there. It turned out that there are, in fact, 169 people buried back there. And it was extremely overgrown with a lot of trees and bushes and ivy that had taken over the space.”

Returning to the Historical Society offices, Martinelli contacted Richard Berry, executive director of Elwyn New Jersey, and discovered that he and some of his co-workers “had been discussing salvaging the cemetery because they felt bad it had been neglected for so long.” The VHAS received Elwyn’s “official blessing” in undertaking a cleanup project and the Society began promoting its plans on social media.  

“A lot of people expressed interest in helping,” Martinelli reported, adding that once the project began, they maintained “a crew of about six or seven people on any given day. And thanks to Jesse DeShields, an extremely dedicated young man who works for Elwyn in their maintenance department, we managed to make significant progress in a very short period of time.” By the end of May, the area within the fence had been cleared and work outside the perimeter had begun. 

From the start, the Training School established a solid reputation throughout the country. In 1929, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck placed her daughter Carol in the Vineland Training School, impressed, according to biographer Peter J. Conn, that the institution “was committed to an educational program, training each child to the limits of his or her abilities.” 

It was where Carol Buck would live out her life, but the recent cemetery salvage offers new information about her burial on the grounds. “We thought Carol Buck had a full gravesite,” Martinelli explained, “but it looks like she was probably cremated and buried there in an urn because there are four or five other markers all located within the same space that would normally fill a gravesite. The sad part to us is that the marker was just a temporary marker that had been there since 1992. So, we reached out to the Pearl Buck Foundation. We’re still waiting to hear back from them, but we’re hoping that they’ll decide to pay for a more permanent marker, at least for Carol.” Martinelli said the VHAS will look into “long-term” markers for the others buried in that gravesite. 

Martinelli explained that the project also uncovered a map identifying the resting place of most individuals interred in the cemetery. She said the map and a list of those interred will probably be made available at the VHAS website but that anyone wishing to visit the cemetery would need to contact Elwyn. 

The cleanup project continues through June and will resume in the fall, but the detective work may not be finished this year. There are several graves not marked or represented on the map.  “They may remain a mystery for all time unless someone comes forward to identify them for us,” said Martinelli.