A few weeks back, I was pouring over old documents with Compass writer and Green Hill Cemetery Trustee Jay Towne, looking to piece together some of the facts behind their missing trust fund problem. One of the rumors we were looking into had to do with the circumstances surrounding the removal of the cast iron fence that once enclosed the entire cemetery years ago. We found documents that showed sections of the fence had been removed and sold off at several different times in the cemetery’s history. In the early 1980’s the section that ran along Church St. was removed as part of a project to widen and straighten that section of the road. The section of fence running along Cornell St. was removed in 1990, the same year one of the two trustees later accused of mis-managing the cemetery’s funds joined the board. The State Attorney General’s lawsuit, filed in 1999 against the two trustees, made no mention of money made from the sale of the fence being taken and we did not find any “smoking gun” in that regards either. However, we did find some interesting letters and documents that illustrated how at least one prominent local businessman tried to keep the fence up, and gave us a clue as to where sections of the fence may still be found in Amsterdam today.
We discovered several letters written by the late Thomas Constantino, who was the founder of the Noteworthy Company Inc., and whose primary facility was located on the other side of Church Street, across from the cemetery. Constantino wasn’t in favor of taking down the fence . We found one letter dated 1978 in which he voiced his concern over the proposed Church Street project which would require the fence to be taken down. In another letter dated May 1981, Constantino wrote:
I am very concerned over the proposed removal of the Green Hill Cemetery fence. The fence is a perfect example of late Victorian style decorative iron work and Church St. is a proposed National Regsiter of Historic places multiple resource district, which includes City Hall. The fence is a part of Amsterdam’s built heritage and should be preserved.
In a letter dated June, 1981, he wrote
I am sure you good folks on the Board of Trustees of the Green Hill Cemetery want to do the right thing with the memorial fence. I cannot emphasize enough how right it would be to restore the fence and let it once again show its respect and pride in the people of our city…Please know this fence speaks for the concern, pride, substance and reverence of the people of past and confidence of the present and hope of the future. We must appreciate this legacy which has inspired many for which I personally am evidence. It is folly on the part of us as adults today to deprive the future generations of this.
In the same letter, he pledged a sum of money to help with the restoration.
Later in June of 1981, he wrote:
I am indeed sorry we did not get together more frequently before the iron fence came down because I sincerely feel that the state would have been disposed to restoring this fence had your board requested this…I will do my darnedest to improve this side of the road and within the next year develop the long sought after environmental park I am committed to do.
Along with the letters, we found a tri-fold brochure outlining Constatino’s vision for a park and monument to be built on the Noteworthy owned property on Church St.
In the brochure, Constatino described his motivation for building the park:
Our purpose is to dramatize the important eras of history that transpired in New York State within a short fifty mile radius of Amsterdam. The result will be a comprehensive and lasting tribute to the people who charter the course of America’s progress – and provided the impetus to bring us to where we are today.
These people, these places, these events that shaped America’s destiny can be traced to eight key regions of New York State, all located within a short radius of Amsterdam. Therefore, on a site in the heart of Amsterdam, hub city of America’s journey into greatness, The Noteworthy Company proposes that a monument be erected to honor our proud heritage to keep the development of America in perspective. This will also provide a lasting source of inspiration for generations to come.
The brochure identifies what he believed were eight key aspects to America’s success and linked a local person or place with each aspect: Religion – Auriesville Shrine, Defense – Sir William Johnson, Freedom – the Battle of Saratoga, Agriculture – Schoharie County, Economics – The Erie Canal, Industry – General Electric, Ecology – Noteworthy’s own litterbag product, and Space Exploration – Dr. Rocco Petrone of Amsterdam who was Director of Launch Operations at Kennedy Space Center .
I messaged Carol Constantino, his wife, currently residing in Florida to see what she knew about the proposed idea. At first she said my description of the park sounded like a plan he had for a monument near Auriesville Shrine. Later when I was able to send her pictures of the brochure, she wrote back:
I do remember this piece…It was not unlike Tom to take an idea and massage it, revise it and even move it! He was obviously thinking of placing this in our upper parking lot. Needless to say, this did not come to fruition, but that never deterred Tom. He loved the historical significance of the area and wanted to not merely preserve history for future generations, but also find a way to showcase the history and make it center-stage. His intent was to develop pride for the residents and attract others to our area.
All of these projects required Tom’s total dedication. Tom had a very fertile and promotionally oriented mind. He could see opportunities but was constrained by his time, talent and treasure. Of course, business had to come before any of these concepts could be developed…and business was all-consuming. So needless to say, plans like this would get shelved, resurrected and revised until he could find all the right parts.
Going through the old Green Hill records, we also found a document that suggested that a section of the fence may have gone to the Sara Jane Sanford Home on Guy Park Ave. Passing by the home, I saw that it did indeed have a very nice and old looking fence around it.
Later I talked with Jeanne So, who has served as administrator of the home for the past 15 years. She said she was fairly certain that the fence on the west side of the facility was from the cemetery. She said that she had postcards which showed that the fence around the original building was installed sometime between 1907 and 1911. In 2008, she oversaw the construction of an expansion wing to the facility. To build the new wing, the home acquired adjacent property that was once owned by Doctor Charles J. Bertuch Jr. So said that she found sections of the iron fence buried in the bushes on the property. She then had the sections re-painted and welded together to join a continuous fence extending the entire length of the edge of the property along Guy Park Ave.
I told her we had found a letter from Bertuch dated May 1982 with an offer to purchase 300 to 400 feet of the fence from Green Hill.
So what’s the big deal about this fence? Why would anyone be willing to expend time, effort and expense to restore these old pieces of iron? It seems to me you can look at historical artifacts in one of two ways: as raw materials to be sold at market value, or as reminders of the people and circumstances who came before us and how they shaped what our community is like today. Both Thomas Constantino and Jeanne So strike me as builders who knew the value of remembering the past as they built and planned for the future. If anything, maybe that is the lesson we can learn from the story about a fence.
(Photos by Tim Becker)