WELLS — After nearly half a century, an effort to restore one of Wells’ most historic graveyards is finally underway.

An easement agreement signed this week between the town of Wells and Optima Bank in Portsmouth, New Hampshire grants the town control over an 11,930-square-foot parcel of land that was previously Torches Restaurant. The land, originally known as Buffum Cemetery, is believed to be the burial ground for some of Wells’ earliest settlers and veterans from the French and Indian War and War of 1812.

Optima Bank foreclosed on the restaurant in 2011, and the town and the bank have been in discussions about how to handle the historic property ever since. Local residents may know the location as Buffum Hill or Willow Tree Place, located on Post Road near Sea Road and Route 9B.

“Since the 1950s, the town’s legislative body has tried to maintain the identifiable graves on the property, but because the land was under private ownership, that wasn’t possible until now,” said Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter.

At the town’s urging, the bank agreed to pay for an archeological survey which identified at least seven to eight cemeteries on the property, identifiable by slate gravestones and field stone markers.

“The survey company used radar to penetrate the ground and found things that might be remains and other anomalies of interest under the building. It will be interesting to see what we can learn once the foundations are removed from the easement area,” Carter said.

Under the terms of the agreement, Optima Bank will demolish the four existing buildings on the property, including their foundations. The bank has also agreed to handle any asbestos mediation if needed. The projected costs for the demolition is $25,000 with the town picking up any costs beyond that.

“It is estimated to cost about that with an abatement we’ve identified,” Carter said.

Optima Bank plans to sell the remaining land to a developer with plans to build a 12 unit Elderly Housing Life Care Facility. The housing project, called Wells Point, includes an on-site treatment and support building. That project goes before the Wells Planning Board on Jan. 5.

The agreement is good news to Wells Town Historian Hope Moody Shelley. A Wells native, Shelley was appointed to the voluntary position by the board of selectmen in 1992. She is also the author of, “My name is Wells. I am the town,” a history of the town of Wells written in 2002 to commemorate the town’s 350th anniversary of incorporation.

According to Shelley, Wells has more than 200 historic graveyards, and she believes some of the oldest graves under the Torches property date back to the late 1650s, when the land was owned by Edmund Littlefield ”“ one of town’s original settlers. Shelley also believes relatives of the town’s first religious leader, Rev. John Wheelwright, and many historic war veterans are also buried there.

Shelley has identified historical references that confirm the land was also the site of a three-day battle in June of 1692 between local settlers and American Indians allied with the French during the French and Indian War.

“The fallen Indians were buried there in a mass grave and were probably marked with field stones, as was the custom of that time. The field stones marking that burial site, and those of the early settlers, have been removed by private owners,” said Shelly during a recent interview, in which she explained the history of the property.

According to Shelley, the demise of the graveyard began during a storm in 1933.

“The storm was washing over the lot at what is now Fisherman’s Cove, and so they took the stone from the wall that surrounded the cemetery and moved it to the cove,” she said.

Historical maps from 1856 and 1872 do not show any houses on the property so she believes the property was an active graveyard throughout the 19th century.

“It is believed that the graveyards on this site hold the remains of veterans from historic wars including those of Benjamin Treadwell and Capt. William Cole,” said Shelley.

Both men have been found on documents associated with the War of 1812.

Also documented is the land’s sale to Edward Watson.

“He purchased the land for a market stand for his farm and built his barn right over the mass grave of the Indians, removing all of the fieldstones and other burial markings. At that time, the State of Maine was not very concerned with protecting historic graveyards. It wasn’t until the land was purchased in the 1940s by the Byrnes Family of New York (who built vacation cabins on the property), that some members of town became indignant that the graveyard was being destroyed,” Shelley said.

The event was one of the first issues tackled by the newly formed Wells Historic Society in the 1950s and although the town wasn’t able to prevent the Byrnes family from building on the property, Shelley said the society was successful in making sure no new graves could be destroyed.

“The controversy ignited once again in the mid 1990s when Byrnes descendants wanted the town to remove the gravestones because nobody wanted to buy the property,” Shelley said. “The town was ready to swap land with the Byrnes family when they sold it outright to the owners of Porches Restaurant.”

Now, some 45 years later, the graveyard is no longer private property.

“It’s nice to see it come out this way now, after all of the hurdles over the past 50 years,” Shelley said.

According to Carter, if all goes as planned with the demolition, the town will host a celebration in the spring to commemorate the town’s historic figures buried on the property. Town staff is currently researching options to replace existing markers and formal monuments. Millennium Granite is donating all the bounds that will delineate the cemetery easement boundaries.

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