When we live in an area long enough, it’s easy to pass by weathered or decaying buildings and structures without thinking twice about their pasts or futures. But these sites often tell stories rich with Valley history, and for some, they are worth saving.
Viraj Kumar, a high school junior and resident of Poughquag in Dutchess County, saw an opportunity to repair a crumbling cemetery and brought the neighborhood together to salvage it. Now he and a handful of other teens have organized Youth for Restoration, a group that assembles volunteers, raises funds, then rolls up their sleeves to repair historic sites in their community.
The cemetery restoration was their first project, undertaken in autumn 2012. “I’d take the bus home from school, and at the bottom of my hill I’d pass the Apoquague Friends’ Burial Ground,” Kumar explains. “It wasn’t in great shape, and I thought it’d be pretty cool to help restore it with a group of people.”
Kumar researched the site, and discovered it was a Quaker burial ground, established more than 200 years ago when the town of Beekman was founded; a few of the town’s first settlers are interred there.
Kumar assembled a small group of friends to help get the project rolling, then reached out to local officials as well as staff at Arlington High School, which Kumar had previously attended (he attends Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts). “We contacted the school’s volunteer club and some people were able to come out through that,” he says, “but we also went door-to-door handing out fliers. The town historian and supervisor both helped with history and other information, making sure we were allowed to do it.”
By the time they began the four weeks of outdoor work — including brush cleanup, stump removal, and stone wall repair — the group’s volunteer base had swelled to 40 people of all ages. From the initial planning stages to the final cleanup, the project took six months.
“It brought a sense of community to our town,” Kumar says. “It brought together a lot of people in our area who have never met. People we didn’t know stopped by to give us food and thanked us. Even a neighborhood dog adopted us.” Youth for Restoration was born following the cemetery’s completion. “I had in mind a few people to join me, e-mailed them, and we organized ourselves — first brainstorming projects to work on, then deciding on what was best to do,” Kumar explains.
The team — Kumar and Arlington High School students Lauren Macdonald, Lauren Neville, Jordan Scocozza, Eric Layden, and Cristian Soto — met to discuss future projects, setting their sights on the post-and-beam Murphy Grist Mill, which was built along the Fishkill Creek in Poughquag in 1749.
“We had a list of three to four projects, and unanimously voted for the mill house because we felt it had a pretty high significance,” says Kumar. The structure, which was built by Robert Livingston, supplied grain to American troops during the Revolutionary War and was later owned by FDR Jr.
“It’s currently used as a way to display artifacts and pictures,” Kumar explains. “The upstairs is not in good condition and we hope it can be used for storage after the work is done. We had some contractors assess what needs to be done to the mill: the chimney needs work, there are holes in the walls, and the roof needs to be adjusted.”
The group has been busy planning, fund-raising, and recruiting volunteers; they hope to begin work — landscaping, cleaning, and taking inventory of artifacts — in August. They’ve already received support from elected officials, local clubs, and sports organizations.
“When you achieve a new level in your video game you get some satisfaction from it, but the thrill passes quickly,” Kumar says. “The satisfaction of restoring previously flourishing local buildings and sites fuels you much longer.”