Regional Report: Hartland Cemetery Relocated, But Resentment Lingers

Nov 21, 2014

The Vermont Telephone Co. CEO who moved an ancient cemetery in Hartland to clear the way for a new home has received a wastewater permit for the site, but not necessarily the blessings of the many in town who have opposed his plans. The resentments stirred by the three-year battle — one that has variously involved costumed protesters, accusations of graveyard desecration (from both sides) and the exhumation of a cat — remain fresh.
 

Earlier this month, the state Department of Environmental Conservation approved the permit for VTel’s owner and CEO Michel Guite, who in 2011 drew public anger when he successfully petitioned the Vermont Supreme Court to let him move the small historical Aldrich family cemetery off the hilltop.

In his recent permit application to the state, the 69-year-old Guite cited plans for an eight-bedroom house with utilities for up to 11 residents on the 164-acre property. The house is approved to draw water from an existing well and dispose up to 770 gallons of wastewater per day.

Site maps demonstrate that the proposed house and its wastewater system will be near, but not necessarily on top of, the former location of the Aldrich Cemetery; Guite said the house site is about 60 feet away.

Whether or not the new house and its septic system sit directly atop the old cemetery is unimportant, said Gary Trachier, one of the Hartland residents who opposed the cemetery relocation.

“Ninety-nine percent of the disrespect happened a few years ago, when he moved the cemetery,” he said.

The human remains of the Aldrich family, who farmed the land between 1775 and 1853, now rest in a newly constructed cemetery near the edge of the property at the bottom of the hill.

Carol Mowry, the immediate past-president of the Hartland Historical Society, said the new cemetery is out of character with the community.

“It certainly does not reproduce the original Aldrich cemetery,” she said. “It doesn’t look like anything else in Hartland.”

Located by the side of Town Farm Hill Road, its boundaries are defined by a thick stone wall that looks different than the old stone walls built by the region’s early settlers.

Among the rough clumps of recently mowed vegetation, the tombstones themselves, many just worn chips of rock, are laid out in rows that are too geometrically precise to have endured many decades of shifting ground.

One tombstone, which Guite paid to restore, memorializes Noah Aldrich’s remains with the opening lines of a funeral hymn written in 1734.

“Give these sacred relics room,” it reads, referring to Aldrich’s physical remains, “To seek a slumber in the dust.”

Guite says he has upheld the spirit of those words, by moving the cemetery to a more sensible place in the most respectful way he could.

Critics say Guite’s desire to build a house wasn’t a good enough reason to move the bodies in the first place. They say the remains of Aldrich and his family have had their slumber disturbed in a way that won’t soon be forgotten.

Battles Over Sacred Ground

The three-year legal battle between Guite and the late Jerome King, a former antiwar activist and political science professor whose parents had bought the property in 1950, drew national media attention, much of it unfavorable to Guite, who was frequently portrayed as an out-of-state millionaire using wealth and influence to obliterate a piece of Vermont history. Guite lives in Springfield, Vt., and also owns a Greenwich, Conn., property assessed at more than $2.3 million in 2013.

After the Kings sold the property in 1983, it passed through the hands of other owners; it was eventually purchased by the Unified Buddhist Church, which ran afoul of an environmental group when its plans to establish a retreat and meditation center on the site became known.

In 2008, Guite bought the property from the church for $2 million, and soon thereafter took out a newspaper ad announcing plans to move the cemetery and establish a farmhouse on the hilltop.

The idea of moving human remains for private reasons struck an instant nerve in the local community, especially for King, who testified that in 1982 he had buried urns containing the ashes of his own parents in the Aldrich Cemetery.

During initial court proceedings, protesters showed up in period military garb to highlight Aldrich’s status as a veteran in the War of 1812. Veteran groups condemned Guite’s actions in media outlets.

Guite said he understands the appeal of the story, but believes he was unfairly maligned.

“If you believe it, then it’s a blast. It’s a fantastic story,” he said. “But none of those things are right.”

For one thing, he said, Noah Aldrich never served in the War of 1812. Mowry conceded that Aldrich’s status as a war veteran had been a mistake; a different Aldrich had served in the war during the same time period, which led to the confusion, she said.

Throughout the court battle, the feisty King also won public sympathy for representing himself against Guite’s lawyers. For his part, Guite spoke to reporters about property rights, and a simple desire to keep strangers from using the sacred ground as a public park, which he said was a site for late-night parties.

“I don’t want to find a condom with my 3-year-old in my backyard,” he said.

A probate court ruled Guite could not move the cemetery, a decision that was initially upheld by Windsor Superior Court in 2010, and then overturned by the Vermont Supreme Court in 2011. The court found that, when the Aldrich family sold the farm in 1853, the family had withheld the small 41-foot-by-27-foot cemetery plot, and so the graveyard rightfully belonged to the Aldrich family heirs.

Because this meant the King family never actually owned the graveyard, the court found that King never had the right to bury his parents there, and therefore had no legal grounds on which to oppose the moving of the cemetery.

A Question of Character

Guite is a complex figure, according to those who know him. His lawyer, George Lamb, called him one of the smartest men he’s ever known; even Guite’s detractors acknowledge his strengths — he was described variously as well-spoken, outspoken, persuasive and persistent.

King’s son, Dan King, who says Guite’s court actions eventually forced him to dig up his own grandparents’ ashes, said “he can be very charming.”

But King and others say that Guite deploys his charm — and his financial resources — to achieve his own ambitions, no matter what it takes.

“He’s ruthless,” King said. “He lives in his own reality and he has enough money to make it happen.”

Guite is active in both business and politics; in September, he made a $10,000 contribution to the Vermont Democrats. In 2010, his company won a $116 million government grant and loan package to improve the state’s broadband infrastructure. The Valley News that year reported that Guite and his family had given more than $72,000 in campaign contributions to Vermont politicians and related campaigns, primarily for Democrats, over the past five years.

Guite said the seeds of dissent were sown before he even bought the property because of the friction between the Buddhist church and the Lull’s Brook Watershed Association, which opposed the church’s development of the land.

Guite says the community had taken too keen an interest in his land, and that the situation was rocky from the moment he stepped into town.

“My take on why everyone got so pissed off at me, it’s my personal view that the eviction of the Buddhists was so appalling,” he said, “... I think a lot of people stayed out of it and then said, gee, I won’t be so silent on that property next time.”

He offered an apology to those who were upset by the cemetery’s relocation, even as he said he considered the project to be a big success.

“Nothing is a perfect success, but it was a success, and I’m sorry for having disconcerted those who have been disconcerted,” he said.

Trachier said his issue with Guite has nothing to do with Buddhists or personality.

It was the moving of the cemetery.

“I just felt that it really was running roughshod over the town’s history,” Trachier said, “and the wishes of the folks who made that cemetery there.”

Moving the Dead

One action by Guite has drawn praise — when he moved the cemetery, he could have hired any undertaker to do it at a cut-rate price.

Instead, he paid the Consulting Archaeology Program of the University of Vermont more than $70,000 to do the work, perform additional research, and document its findings for academic posterity.

UVM Professor and Program Director John Crock said it was of great value as a case study in the evolution of a family cemetery.

“He definitely went beyond the call of duty, certainly beyond the legal necessities, which I think was very respectful to the Aldrich family,” Crock said.

Kate Canney, who oversaw the exhumation, said her crew dug trenches alongside the cemetery boundaries and slowly worked their way sideways through the earth with whisk brooms and picks, careful not to let any bone shard or coffin nail escape their notice. When they got to a skeleton, Canney said, they would “disarticulate the person, put the pieces into boxes and bring the boxes up to UVM” for testing. Canney has spent the last three years writing a 200-page report on the project.

One thing the researchers found, and this is an important detail to Guite, is that the site had already undergone a significant number of small changes, disturbances and alterations that undermine the idea that the human remains interred there had been left undisturbed.

Some of the gravestones had been moved by previous caretakers, while two of the children’s bodies had been dug up and removed, probably at the behest of family members who had moved away.

Nature, too, played a role.

“I’m pretty sure woodchucks got involved and had scattered remains pretty far afield,” Canney said.

In all, the researchers moved the remains of 10 humans, including two young brothers who had apparently died of the flu. They also found and moved the remains of a cat, which Dan King said last week belonged to his grandmother.

In addition to restoring the tombstones, Guite said he had cedar coffins handmade in the style of the day; each person was buried in a woolen blanket made in “the last mill that (produced) all-wool handspun blankets in America,” according to Guite.

Owning History

After moving the cemetery, Guite successfully petitioned the town to relinquish Ayers Lane, a quarter mile of road that leads from Town Farm Hill Road to the former cemetery site.

Having established his dominion over the property boundaries, Guite is also taking steps to influence the historical perception of the site.

Guite commissioned a four-page typed summary of the controversy prepared by his lawyer, Donald Lamb, and submitted it to UVM for inclusion in the report.

The letter, written in May of 2012, recounts Guite’s arguments in detail but glosses over facts that would support King’s arguments; for example, while it cites the decision of the Vermont Supreme Court, it makes no mention of the fact that two lower courts ruled in King’s favor.

Crock said the report will include Guite’s submission, but it won’t carry the stamp of authority that accompanies the report’s main body.

“It wasn’t something we wanted to adopt as our own,” Crock said. “It was subjective and prepared for him.”

Also included in the summary is an allegation against Jerry King that seems remarkable on its face.

King, Guite claims, never buried his parents on the hilltop cemetery in the first place.

Disputed Ashes

One July day in 2011, just weeks after losing the Vermont Supreme Court case, Dan King drove his father, Jerome King, to their former property to collect the remains of the elder King’s parents.

His son said the battle against Guite, during which Guite also sued King for burying fuel tanks on the site, eventually wore on him.

“It galvanized him initially, but after three or four years, he was tired of it,” he said. “He’d had enough.”

They were met near the cemetery by Lamb and another man, who were there at Guite’s request to monitor the actions of the Kings.

Dan King, a former employee of the Co-op Food Store in Lebanon who is suing the Co-op over his controversial firing in June, and Lamb offer different accounts of what happened at the cemetery.

King said he and his father used a shovel to dig up the ashes, which he said were in two distinct clumps in the ground. He said they put the ashes, along with the tattered remains of cardboard boxes they were buried in, into a silk bag made by his sister. The elder King died in 2012 at the age of 85, and is now buried with those remains on a family plot in Greensboro, Vt.

But Lamb’s account, included in the four-page summary submitted to UVM, is that the Kings never dug up anything at all.

“No one did any digging below the surface,” Lamb wrote. “The visitors removed a surface headstone marked ‘King’ that lay flat on the ground and some dirt and pebbles.”

The difference between the two accounts is important, because Jerome King’s legal case was founded on the fact that he had buried his parents in the cemetery. Dan King said the claim against his father is just one more distasteful example of Guite’s disrespect for the dead.

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Dan King.

The Next Chapter

The piece of land at the center of all the controversy is no longer recognizable as the former resting place of the Aldrich family.

In the tradition of early settlers, Guite is continuing to impose his will on the land. He has demolished buildings on the site, blasted rock, cleared trees, built 5,000 feet of stone walls, and spent about $70,000 to plant nearly 2,000 sugar maple trees with hundreds of black walnuts mixed in.

“We’re simply trying to make the place a better farmland,” he said. “We’re not historians. We’re interested in doing it because we want to make the best farmlands we can.”

On the sunny hilltop, heavy equipment has obliterated the former graveyard, smoothing the contours of the land to make it easier to develop. At the bottom of the sloping hills, the orchards Guite is reclaiming are visible, the tiny red and orange dots of unplucked fruit adding a splash of color to the late-season drab.

When describing his long-term ambitions for the property, Guite invokes the names of presidents.

“We believe the future of a Vermont small farm is going to be making a soft apple cider, like Thomas Jefferson used to make in 1770, slightly fermented, nice cold cider, really delicious tasting,” he said.

He’s renamed the property Four Winds Farm, a nod to a house by the same name he once rented from Ethel Derby, the daughter of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

At times, the man who fought so hard to build his house on the hilltop spoke enthusiastically about what it might look like.

“I know I want to build a house that’s sort of rectangular, that has an open porch on all four sides,” he said. “It’s supposed to look like Grandma’s house, where you would have gone for cookies in about the 1930s.”

Still, it is possible that everything — the legal battle with the Kings, the costly exhumation, the state permit, the years of wrangling, the pain and effort, the money — will lead to a different outcome.

There’s a possibility, Guite said, that he may eventually decide not to put a house there after all.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling is a reporter for the Valley News, where this story first appeared.