The headstone of Richard Townsend of the famous Townsend family,...

The headstone of Richard Townsend of the famous Townsend family, in an abandoned cemetery recently discovered in East Hills. Some of the headstones in the parcel date back to the 1790s. (July 19, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

The Townsends are among Long Island's most prominent historical lineages. But you'd never know it by looking at their cemetery in East Hills.

Just to get inside, visitors have to clamber over a rusted chain-link fence, then wade through poison ivy and several snarls of brambles to get a look at the burial sites. Large chunks are missing from many headstones; others are obscured by undergrowth. Empty beer cans are scattered in a corner.

The forgotten plots, which date to the 18th century, have suffered from years of neglect. But after a recent rediscovery, and an exhaustive review of their origins by North Hempstead Town's historian, Howard Kroplick, the Townsend cemetery might soon be cleaned up.

"It's the right thing to do," Kroplick said. "They're maybe one of the oldest families on Long Island, and this should not be a debris field."

About six months ago, East Hills Village Mayor Michael Koblenz got a complaint about an overgrown, derelict cemetery.

"I said, 'What cemetery?' " Koblenz recalls.

He asked Kroplick, an East Hills resident, to do some research. The historian quickly discovered that the cemetery had a story to tell.

The Townsend family's history on Long Island starts in the 1600s, when brothers John, Henry and Richard moved to Oyster Bay from what is now Flushing, according to Allison Putala, director of the Townsend Society of North America in Oyster Bay.

The 33 people buried in East Hills include a great-great-grandson of John Townsend, Putala said, plus 12 other Townsends, a prominent family of merchants with strong involvement in local government.

Records uncovered by Kroplick, 63, show the cemetery was active from 1790 to 1894.

When East Hills annexed the site as part of a 16-acre acquisition in 1961, press clippings show it had fallen into disrepair.

Officials cleared the cemetery, but it wasn't maintained by the village, Kroplick said. The surrounding area had been converted from farmland to an estate, and later to a subdivision.

"The one thing that was constant was the cemetery," he said.

A state Division of Cemeteries investigator told Kroplick when private cemeteries are abandoned, upkeep reverts to the town.

Since the plot is split between North Hempstead and Oyster Bay, the two towns are planning an agreement that will outline responsibilities for preservation and maintenance.

"We take the obligation pretty seriously, as does the town of Oyster Bay," North Hempstead supervisor Jon Kaiman said.

The state has transferred responsibility for 166 abandoned public and nonprofit cemeteries to towns since 1970, according to Division of Cemeteries spokesman Edison Alban. Statistics for private plots, like the one in East Hills, are not tracked, Alban said, but they make up roughly two-thirds of all cemeteries in the state. Kaiman estimates his town cares for about a half-dozen.

But the qualities of the Townsend Cemetery seem to captivate anyone who sees it. There's the setting, tucked between suburban houses and shaded by maples.

There are the stately tombstones, like the monument for the Horsfield family that's adorned not only with a sculpted vine, but also with a real green tendril.

And there's the way the cemetery, and its surroundings, encapsulate the history of the area -- a relic from the agrarian past mixed in with cul-de-sacs and a chain-link fence.

"It's just really extraordinary to kind of come across this patch of history," Kaiman said.

Townsend Cemetery statistics

Number of burials: 34 (17 women, 16 men, and one of unknown gender)

Average age at death: 43 years, 1 month

Earliest burial: Nov. 24, 1790 (Timothy Townsend)

Last Burial: Nov. 12, 1894 (Ethalinda Townsend)

Burial ground area: 86 feet by 476 feet

Source: Howard Kroplick, North Hempstead town historian

Timeline of the Townsend Cemetery

1645: Land (250 acres) purchased from American Indians by the Willis family.

1852: One acre set aside for use as a burying ground.

1900s: Land becomes part of Alfred I. DuPont estate.

1920s: Land becomes part of the estate of Frederick E. Guest and Amy T. Phipps Guest.

1954: 110 acres sold to developers Kalman Klein and David Teicholz.

1961: Area annexed by Village of East Hills, from Brookville.

2012: North Hempstead and Oyster Bay plan to refurbish cemetery.

Source: Howard Kroplick, North Hempstead Town historian

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