Wilton’s largest cemetery turns 200
Kendra Baker photos
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the establishment of Wilton Congregational Church’s Hillside Cemetery at 165 Ridgefield Road.
Hillside is the largest cemetery in town and serves as the final resting place of more than 6,000 people, including Wilton’s founding families like the Comstocks, Hurlbutts, Middlebrooks, Keelers and Olmsteads.
The cemetery was first known as “Joe’s Hill Cemetery” — named after Jonathan Middlebrook, who deeded his one-acre burial plot to the Wilton Congregational Church in 1818.
Thirty-five years later, just south of Joe’s Hill, Ebenezer Betts opened a private cemetery known as E.G. Betts Cemetery. The land was later passed to Virginia Middlebrook Wilkinson, who then donated the approximately five-acre property to the Wilton Congregational Church in 1918.
A third parcel was added in 1936, when the church purchased four and a half acres from Birdie Lee Wilder in 1936 for $100, according to records found in the Wilton Library History Room.
The cemetery’s largest addition to date was a 20-acre parcel from Julian and Stewart Gregory in 1950, which the church purchased for $16,000 with funds provided by New York City industrialist and philanthropist Charles Dana of Wilton. Dana made many donations to groups in Wilton and around the country.
Today, the cemetery sits on 27 acres with “about 15 acres remaining for future development” and “expansion potential,” according to the cemetery’s website.
Burials and notable people
The cemetery’s oldest burials are in the “the part closest to the 183 Ridgefield Road property,” also known as the “Joe’s Hill section,” according to town and Wilton Congregational Church historian Bob Russell. This section is also known as the “old section.”
The “earliest legible headstones” belong to Jonathan Middlebrook’s parents, Michael and Abiah Middlebrook, who died in 1791 and 1795, respectively, said Russell, but the St. Johns are “probably” Hillside’s earliest burials.
That would be Martha St. John and her son Elijah, who died in 1788 and 1789, respectively. Both their graves can be found in the old section.
Veterans from various wars are buried in Hillside, including 18 of Wilton’s Revolutionary War veterans like Maj. Samuel Comstock and Capt. Daniel Hurlbutt, who died in 1824 and 1827.
Hillside “serves as a tribute to the service and sacrifice of Revolutionary, Civil, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans,” according to the cemetery’s website. It is also home to the annual Wilton Memorial Day remembrance ceremony in May.
Several notable individuals are interred at Hillside, including town historians David Hermon Van Hoosear (1844-1921) and Griffith Evans Hubbard (1892-1950), founder of The Wilton Bulletin. Some other notable people buried in Hillside are:
Dr. Joseph Edward Turner (1822-1889), a “pioneer in the treatment of alcoholism,” according to Russell, who tried to establish a hotel for women alcoholics in Wilton in the late-1800s.
Edward Stanford Martin (1856-1939), first literary editor of Life magazine and founder of Harvard University's undergraduate humor publication, The Harvard Lampoon.
Mary Emma Woolley (1863-1947), president of Mount Holyoke College from 1900 to 1937, and one of Brown University’s first female graduates.
“One of the most interesting markers” in Hillside Cemetery, said Russell, is that of Stephen Stafford Thayer (1854-1936), whose inscription reads: “I shook hands with Abraham Lincoln and refused to drink with General Grant.”
For the last 10 years, Hillside has offered more than burial plots.
To offer an alternative to traditional burial, an area designated for the burial of cremations, called the Cremation Memorial Garden, was created in 2008.
In 2015, the garden was dedicated to Virginia “Ginny” Rico, a longtime Cider Mill principal who died after a 14-year battle with multiple myeloma in June 2013.
Hillside Cemetery grounds are open seven days a week, from dawn to dusk.