The search for a 275-year-old forgotten final resting ground for enslaved and free Black Wiltonians may derail plans for redevelopment of a land parcel at 331 Danbury Rd.
Until recently, the triangle-shaped property was the location for a modern-day limousine business, Regency Limousine, now sold to a New Canaan company. The property’s current owner Steve Summerton had been in negotiations to sell to developers who had submitted pre-applications plans for a 126-unit apartment building on the land sandwiched tightly between Rte. 7 on the east and the Norwalk River and MetroNorth’s Danbury Branch railroad line to the west.
But a ‘rediscovery’ of the cemetery dating back to as early as 1749 by Wilton Historical Society historian Dr. Julie Hughes may mean no development will be able to proceed until a more substantial archeological search can determine exactly where on the property the burial ground was located and if anything still remains.
The agenda for tonight’s Wilton Planning and Zoning Commission meeting lists a discussion a letter sent by the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to Town Planner Michael Wrinn notifying him that it was aware the parcel had been identified as a possible location for a “significant historic property worthy of preservation.”
The letter, signed by Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer and Staff Archaeologist Catherine Labadia, noted that while the SHPO has no regulatory role, there is state legislation outlining measures that need to be taken to protect historic burial grounds from disturbance and preserve them. In fact, state law makes intentionally destroying or removing graves or gravestones, or disturbing cemeteries or burial grounds a felony [CT Gen. Stat § 53a-218 (2012)]
Hughes had been hired by the Historical Society to conduct research into enslaved people in Wilton when she learned about the burial grounds, commonly called Spruce Bank Cemetery in historical records that include Bob Russell’s book about Wilton.
But while the various records and accounts point to 331 Danbury Rd. as the general location for the cemetery, there is little specific evidence as to the precise location. Hughes has looked for clues by studying several artifacts, including land ownership records; geological information about the soil types and rock ledge areas that are conducive (or not) to burying people; and accounts from other historians who documented Wilton’s history.
She has identified three possible locations and plans to walk the property to look first hand. But with no apparent artifacts visible or obvious, it will take further detailed investigation to potentially locate anything more concrete or substantial — if at all.
“In 1851 or 1852, when the railroad came through, they brought in fill and built up those tracks as well. So if that is where the cemetery was located on the property, then it’s still there, but it’s buried. And there are some high tension lines — Connecticut Light and Power goes through there and they have an easement. And then of course, Rte. 7 is crossing above,” Hughes explained.
The pre-application for the 126-unit multi-family housing complex was discussed at P&Z in August. The Commission was unimpressed with the “ugly” proposal, and gave it what GMW called at the time a “frosty reception.”
Hughes said she learned at least one of the two developers had pulled out of the project, and the other was also hesitant to continue. But with the property up for sale and its Wilton Center-area location so close to the Wilton train station, there’s a strong prospect it will be developed, so Hughes was concerned enough to raise the red flag with the Historical Society and the SHPO.
That concern has been echoed by the Historical Society, where Hughes is a newly-appointed member of the board. Executive Director Nick Foster said the Society “wants to make sure that the appropriate due diligence is done to determine if the cemetery is in the location we believe it to be, and if so, also determine the extent and condition of the cemetery. This cemetery is of historic significance, but most importantly we want to make sure that any potential burials and remains are treated with the appropriate respect. It is the belief of the Society that it is in the best interest of all involved parties to gather the appropriate information with the help of experts in the field before any potential development occurs.”
Hughes doesn’t want to block development outright; her concern is the possible historical importance and taking the proper steps to ensure the right thing historically is done. That may include ground-penetrating radar and other more-involved methods.
“There’s every possibility that you bring in an archeologist and they search and they can’t find anything, or that they do find something, but it’s up in that northern area. So this is not a death sentence to development. It’s is a potential complication. We simply do not know without further investigation,” she said.
Whose Voices Should be Heard
Hughes and Wilton resident Pamela Hovland have created a Change.org petition, “Save Spruce Bank Wilton’s Ancient Black Burying Ground,” that is asking to allow “the beloved sons and daughters, mothers and fathers of Wilton’s past [to] rest in peace.” As of press time almost 100 people had signed it and it has been submitted to Planning and Zoning in time for tonight’s meeting.
But Hughes reiterated that as part of the conversation, the voices of the community most impacted by this discovery should be heard. As part of her work she has reached out to known descendants of some of Wilton’s earliest-known black residents, both free and enslaved, as well as representatives of Norwalk’s Bethel AME Church and the NAACP.
“We know it was there in 1749, and it could be as early as about 1726 or so when Wilton becomes a parish, Wilton was part of Norwalk. So historically, these people were from Norwalk and they were buried in this Wilton Parish. The Historical Society, as much as they want to advocate, and as much as I want to advocate, I don’t think we have some intrinsic right to speak for these enslaved people who are buried there. If somebody has more of a right to do that, it’s going to be the Black leadership at this church, it’s going to be the Norwalk NAACP. The most obvious people who could speak for anyone buried there would be descendants,” Hughes said.
She also stressed that there are no ‘villains’ in this story, and depending on the outcome of the search of a specific location, the current owner of the property has much to lose through no fault of his own.
“Steve Summerton didn’t know at all what he was getting into when he bought this property back in 1986. It was kind of known in the Historical Society circles that Spruce Bank is probably there, but he didn’t know, and nothing he has done has been at all wrong. He didn’t know it was there. He hasn’t done anything to harm it on purpose. And so far, he’s doing everything right. He’s scared — his own financial interests are wrapped up in this, so he’s certainly hoping for a certain outcome, but he’s being a good guy,” Hughes added.
Tonight’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Members of the public can attend via Zoom. While comments from the public can be submitted via email to Michael Wrinn, noon on Monday was the cutoff time for them to be heard at tonight’s meeting.