Friday, October 29, 1999
A great hearse for a small town
In 1808 the spring Town Meeting "voted that the town raise one hundred dollars to procure a hearse." Nearly 200 years ago, $100 was a whopping lot of money.
The old practice of family burial grounds had passed and proper transport, beyond a common farm wagon, was deemed important enough to take on a significant jump in taxes. And so the town came to have a hearse. The next year the town built a shelter for the hearse at the central burying ground, still then in use, also a place used in storing firearms and powder. This replaced the practice of storing munitions on the upper floor of the meeting house, which could have led to a whole new meaning of "fireworks" at town meetings.
By 1865 the hearse was sufficiently far gone to justify the purchase, for $430, of the second town hearse. (A resident purchased the first for $2, fixed it up and used it as a pleasure wagon for some years after.) A second hearse house was built two years later at Green Cemetery behind the Wilson Chapel for nearly $250, the total being a huge sum for a two-chicken farm town. In 1888, the selectmen purchased sleigh runners to make it a year-round vehicle.
By the 1950s, the hearse was long out of use and in disrepair. A larger "tool shed" was needed. The hearse house was dragged to the southwest corner of Green Cemetery and enlarged. The hearse was on its way to the dump when, according to Dorothy Clark of Bedford Road, her son Bill, then in high school, asked his uncle Joe Clark, who was then road surveyor as well as a cemetery commissioner, if he could have the old hearse. (A 1975 news article states, "About 1950, the selectmen sold the hearse, but the owner never removed it. About 1960, Mr. 'G. William' Clark bought it and moved it to his father's barn on Concord Road." This version could not be confirmed with primary sources.)
Bill took it home to be stored in an open shed which belonged to his loving parents' barn on Concord Street. (I now shall think twice before chiding my daughter for bringing some trinket home from the swap shed.)
G. William Clark, in the 1960s, had the hearse professionally restored in Merrimac, Massachusetts and on display at his funeral home in nearby Bedford. After the 1975 Carlisle and 1976 Bedford July 4 parades, the hearse was again retired to the Clark barn until this past July.
Mrs. Clark said that over the years many antique dealers had knocked on her door asking to the buy the vehicle, but that her son felt it should stay in Carlisle as part of its heritage. It was not for sale.
Just days before this summer's Old Home Day parade, riding a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, Charlie Forsberg and Robby West, with Dorothy Clark's consent and encouragement, uncovered the long hidden wagon to see what was left. Braving dust, dirt, mice nests and bird droppings, they maneuvered it onto Grant Wilson's trailer for a short trip to the hearse equivalent of a car washCharlie Forsberg's garage. Charlie and his wife Joanne spent a gritty 48 hours, pretty much nonstop, cleaning the hearse with Fantastic and two rounds of Murphy's Oil Soap.
Unsure of the condition of the axles, the hearse rode on a trailer in the 1999 Old Home Day parade, after a 24-year hiatus. Jim Forsberg, properly attired in black with a top hat, "drove" the hearse from up top.
What lies in its future? The hearse, temporarily, resides in the Forsbergs' garage, with its next stop the Sorlis' barn, awaiting a more permanent and public display place. The survival of this relic has been in the hands of individuals, heroes, who took it upon themselves to do the right thing. Its future survival will depend on other individuals to take that extra step as well. The Clarks have donated the hearse to the historical society or the town if there is a proper place to display it.
The historical society needs a hero to donate funds for a historical barn or house to appropriately house its collection. The society's holdings have outgrown the library's third floor, and the hearse would look silly up there anyway. Is there anyone out there who would like to be a hero?
Burial plots are still available at the Green Cemetery for Carlisle residents only. Contact Gary Davis, DPW, for available locations of single or family plots up to eight spaces. Single plots are $200, up from $3 in 1902, but a bargain compared with surrounding towns. Acton charges $500 and Concord $1,200.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito