‘Telling stories about people’: Fulton County-native researching early Bleecker community, repairing and maintaining cemetery

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Dave Cummings gestures to one of nearly 100 graves in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Bleecker on May 8.

BLEECKER — Dave Cummings, of Schuylerville, started searching the internet for things to do in Fulton County one day in May 2020 — looking for activities for him and his twin, 16-year-old grandchildren in Averill Park that would bring them to the family cottage in Caroga Lake. The first item to pop up in his search, he said, was the site of the first Roman Catholic church in Fulton County.

“Boy, you talk about something to open the drawer in the brain cells,” he said.

In 1965, 17-year-old Cummings paid for a misdeed by helping a traveling Franciscan priest clean a shrine to St. Joseph up in Bleecker — on the site of the first Catholic church in the county.

That same day in May 2020, he drove to the site. As he walked uphill and saw the shrine, he was taken back 55 years. But, on this journey, he wasn’t riding a trail bike up and back once the day’s work was done. Walking, he noticed a cemetery he had never noticed back then. His grandchildren have visited with him a couple of times since, and two years later, that cemetery and the nearly 100 people laid to rest there have consumed hours and hours of his time.

He is in the process of developing a historical document about the cemetery he hopes to finish by Labor Day and distribute to local historical societies, libraries and other locations. The paper will be roughly 80 pages.

LUCKY STRIKE TO START

As Cummings walked the cemetery that first day, so many last names were familiar either from growing up in Gloversville or summers in Caroga. He had already begun doing research into his own ancestry and came across the website Find A Grave, owned by Ancestry, where people post pictures of graves and information to document them.

He began researching the stones in the Bleecker burial ground, now inactive, and found an alumnus from Gloversville High School posting online about family members interred there.

John Kobuskie, it turned out, had about a dozen family members buried there, some of whom were the original community members from the 1840s.

“I called John, who lives near Binghamton,” Cummings said, “and he started telling me how a relative of his had done some genealogical research.”

It turned out the Rhinhart family, ancestors on Kobuskie’s father’s side, came from Germany in the 1840s. All three Rhinhart children joined the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Nicholas and Daniel are buried in St. Joseph’s, while Peter is in Old Prospect Hill Cemetery in Gloversville. Cummings, a 38-year U.S. Army veteran, pays special attention to the flags at Nicholas’s and Daniel’s graves — his fallen brothers in arms.

Kobuskie, whose family made occasional trips to the cemetery to clean relatives’ gravestones, shared some-30-years worth of research his family has done dating back to the 1990s. That was when Cummings started getting serious about his cemetery research. He kept up with his work online and had conversations with more people he grew up with, including his former fellow scouts.

Those conversations helped him connect with Eleanor Brooks, town of Bleecker historian, who knows a lot about the church and cemetery, he said. Her friend, the town clerk who determined his work was a research project, thus deeming him eligible to receive a four-page spreadsheet of those she knew were buried in the cemetery, along with, if she had the information, their dates of birth, dates of marriage, dates of death, children’s names and where they came from.

“The next thing you know, I had pretty much half of the cemetery of the 98 people that are in there covered,” Cummings said. “And that was also when I found out that Fulton County had cataloged four times who is buried in that cemetery as well as others.”

The work has gone much further over the hundreds of hours spent at the site, on the computer and going through physical records. A number of historians and librarians in the county worked with Cummings to access records and newspapers. He has also maintained the grounds, cleaned and fixed headstones with friends and families and worked with the Church of the Holy Spirit in Gloversville. The last remains were buried in the 1970s, and he’s even located several living relatives of some of the dead. He also got hold of one of only three copies of a town resident’s memoir.

At one point, Cummings picked up a Fulton County phone book from 1990 and started cold calling people with names potentially connected to the cemetery. Sometimes those landlines were not in service. Some people had information to share, while others had no idea about the cemetery. No one discouraged him.

Cummings “goes from one source to another. It’s just a part of his life the last couple of years — seeking out this information,” Kobuskie said. “It’s for the purpose of just giving families a sense of where they came from and what their people had to live through back in the 1800s, and it was a different life. It was a hard life.”

ABOUT PEOPLE

Cummings is not just maintaining a cemetery and gathering records. He is creating a document to tell the history of the people from this community.

“History is about telling stories about people,” Cummings said.

His paper includes sections about the arrival of the first immigrants, their paths to naturalized citizenship, how the parish, its priests, the shrine and cemetery evolved, the making of gravestones, and the histories of the 45 families who made up the parish.

A project of this scope — including the research, the physical labor and the actual document production — is rare, said Samantha Hall-Saladino, Fulton County historian. 

“I think genealogists and other historians for generations to come will find [the research paper] useful if they are looking up specific individuals or trying to trace their family history or just trying to get a broader understanding of the county, in general,” Hall-Saladino said.

Cummings is approaching his deadline but he still has work to do. He has identified more than 60 people interred and some stories of their lives, and that leaves some 30 to go. Some interred people were moved to other area cemeteries over time as families moved and wanted their loved ones still to be close by. He is still determining if some stones set deeper into the ground might be gravestones that fell over and sunk in because there are not as many stones as people listed as interred. Cummings’ goal is to include some narrative about each person buried there.  

One of the gravesites includes a headstone that reads: “Maria, wife of Patrick Gibbons,”  but aside from that, Cummings has discovered little about her, though he may have connected her family history back to Ireland.

“This is why, one of the [reasons], I’d love to get the public exposure on this project,” Cummings said. “Is there anybody that knows — backup all the way — about Maria?”

“You got pieces of historical data [from] mining it…the secret is to stitch it all together and clearly come out,” he said.

CARING FOR THE GROUNDS

Telling the community’s story is still not the whole of Cummings’ project. Much like his first trips in 1965, Cummings is doing the work to clean and take care of both the cemetery and the shrine that he first saw as a teen.

Another friend from Cummings’ youth, Pierre Alric of Pickett Memorial Company in Gloversville, has helped in this endeavor. Alric’s experience with cemetery memorials has guided Cummings through the process of cleaning headstones for the purpose of uncovering information. Alric has helped raise fallen stones or those sunken into the ground, he has fixed pieces broken from memorials, and he is helping repair the shrine.

“It takes somebody with the interest that David has demonstrated to pull a number of people together, a number of organizations together, and get it cleaned up,” Alric said.

Cummings has coordinated with the Church of the Holy Spirit in Gloversville on cleanup days. But, he has involved the Saratoga Ancient Order of Hibernians in his quest as well. He said eight members of the chapter, including himself, are either from Fulton County or have a connection to the area. The group gathers early in June for a picnic and then spends a day working in the cemetery and at the shrine.

Others have provided vital help over the last two years, but Cummings said he has probably spent 2,500 hours on the project — roughly 15 weeks. He has 14 more to go until Labor Day.

“Whenever I leave, I have a tendency to feel physically a little tired but mentally not at all,” he said. “While I’m working, especially on the stones, and my mind [is] thinking, ‘Where else can I search? What else can I do?’ of the data mines. So, when I get home, I’ll wash my hands and sit down at the keyboard and start saying, ‘I wonder if.’”

By Andrew Pugliese

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