"The Cemetery Fence" - By Rich Chere
It stood for a century along the perimeter of the First Reformed Church Cemetery, a blend of wrought iron strength and beauty.
And then, in an instant in August of 2020, Tropical Storm Isaias left a portion of the historic fence as little more than debris destined for a scrap dumpster.
Or so it seemed.
A large tree in the yard of a neighboring Cooper Road home had come crashing down from the winds of the storm, impaling itself on a post that connected two sections of the fence. Three sections were damaged.
“I expected it would wind up in a dumpster somewhere to be recycled,” says FRC Cemetery Manager Forrest Harper, who has dealt with the destruction left by numerous storms, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Improbably, it wound up in a Brooklyn, N.Y., art gallery as part of a sculpture created by artist Jeffrey Mase.
That was not part of the plan when Ken Grimbilas took on the task of repairing the fence. As the guiding force of the FRC Cemetery Commission, Grimbilas has generously followed his passion for maintaining and improving the cemetery.
At Tornqvist, his metal fabricating company in Wayne, he had produced replacement fence panels in the aftermath of Sandy.
“Ten of them had to be made from scratch. I made a couple of extras and we ended up with six or eight additional panels which we stored in the garage for the next Sandy,” Grimbilas recalls.
“Thankfully it wasn’t a Sandy that hit. It was a bit of a storm involving a tree that should have been removed.”
The first sections of the Cemetery’s wrought iron fence, as well as four stone piers, were installed along the Boulevard near the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century at a cost of $1,454. It was a gift from Julia M. Peck.
In the late 1920s an additional 3,200 feet of fence was installed along the Cemetery’s perimeter at a cost of $6,752. That brought the total cost to $8,206, which would be equivalent to $134,000 today, although wrought iron fencing would be far mostly costly today.
Before the new fence could be installed, the damaged sections had to be removed.
“It probably remained on the ground (in the Cemetery) for a month,” says Grimbilas. “I asked Forrest to remove it and, if he didn’t have a place to put it, to drop it off at my shop and I’d put it in the scrap dumpster. A couple weeks later Forrest showed up, put it on the lawn behind my building and it sat there. For whatever reason, we didn’t put in in the dumpster.”
Two iron “I” beam posts, an impaled section of the tree and cement footings were destined for better things.
Mase, a former 1975 New Jersey state wrestling champion (122 pounds) for Bridgewater West High School, owns a firm that does custom metal work. A resident of Bedminster, he has completed projects for the Grammy parties in New York, a historic fence for Bette Midler and metal work for wealthy clients that others would or could not handle.
Art is his hobby, not his profession.
“I do a fair amount of work with Ken and he brought those two elements to his fabrication shop. They were laying in the parking lot and I saw them,” explains Mase, who graduated from NYU in 1979, studied welding in Ohio, furniture and architectural work with blacksmith Guiseppe Barsi in Italy and has had art studios in Greenwich Village and Bedminster.
“When that tree fell it impaled itself onto one of those ‘I’ beam posts and it looked as though it grew around that post. When I first looked at it I thought it had grown that way. How else could you get that ‘I’ beam perfectly embedded into that section of the tree? Then I realized it probably had fallen and impaled itself.
“When they removed it, it was almost like a barbell where you had the tree stump, the ‘I’ beam and the concrete root ball on the other end.
“The other element was a fence post that actually got bent inside of that. I thought it might be interesting to have these two objects suspended, one from the other, floating out in space. Each one weighed 300 to 400 pounds. That was the inspiration I had, to have objects of that mass and that weight just kind of floating in space.” Mase has worked with metal, concrete and wood.
“Jeff’s a one-man band. The post weighs maybe 300 pounds with the concrete on it,” says Grimbilas. “He’s got the classic, run-down van that doesn’t look like it’s going to make it another mile.
“Away it went. I had no idea what he was going to do with it.”
The piece is not named. It will remain in a show in Brooklyn through January and then likely be placed in the Whittemore Sculpture Garden in Tewksbury, where Mase has other works.
“I’m not really big on naming my pieces. I refer to it as ‘Balance’ at this point in time,” says Mase, who needed 800 pounds of counterbalance material.
And so, the fence, in another form, lives on.
“I didn’t expect to see it in an art exhibit,” Harper admits. “I can’t think of a better way for it to be recycled than what it is now. Pretty neat where it ended up. Pretty creative.”
Interesting Facts About The First Reformed Church Cemetery
1.The oldest legible grave stone/monument is dated 1786.
2.There are six former First Reformed Church Pastors buried in the Cemetery, including Orville L. Sigafoos, Henry W. Teller, Eugene H. Keator, Edwin T. Jones, Donner B. Atwood and William C. Bennett.
3. Additionally, Rev. Hermanus Meyer (Pastor 1772-1791), is buried in the First Reformed Church sanctuary.
4. The historic Cemetery covers 12 acres.
5. Among the graves of veterans from all wars are those of 90 Civil War veterans and eight veterans of the Revolutionary War.
6. In 1936 Pastor Eugene H. Keator conducted the purchase of the C.W. Tate Evergreens nursery for $4,250, which became part of the Cemetery. Pastor Keator continued to grow shrubs and trees on the parcel of land.
7. A groundskeeping crew of six can mow and trim the 12 acres of grass in one day.
8. In 1928 the wrought iron fence was installed on the perimeter of the Cemetery at a cost of $8,206.
9. There are 8,896 spear pickets on the wrought iron fence, along with 495 posts.
10. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Captain James F. Evans (1845-1918) is buried in the Cemetery.
11. Among other notable graves are those of Cornelius W. Mandeville, a major general in the New Jersey State Militia, who was a friend and protege of President Andrew Jackson; and Peter Hopper, who was chief manager of The Morris Canal.
12. The LeGrand Parish mausoleum, built with Barre Granite and Tiffany adornments for Mr. and Mrs. Parish, is recognized as one of the finest in New Jersey. LeGrand Parish passed away in 1933. Adjusting to today’s dollar, it cost Mr. Parish an equivalent of more than $1 million to build the mausoleum just over 90 years ago.