Heifer, the black and white goat and presumed leader of the herd of goats who are spending the summer at Harsimus Cemetery in Jersey City, bleats from the top of a fallen tree. Out of the maze of historic gravestones and the few remaining patches of weeds, other goats emerge. Carmella, a brown goat with tan stripes across her face, is the most curious of the five goats, attracted to bright objects like the keys in a visitor’s pocket.
The goats don’t always huddle together, but often do, working this section of the graveyard with a common purpose, chewing down weeds that human volunteer caretakers cannot control no matter how many hours they spend with weed-whackers and gloves.
A white goat named Johnny Bravo stands along the upper level where slightly more than two centuries ago General Lafayette must have stood during the American Revolutionary War.
Then it was an encampment for revolutionary forces, and from this point in Jersey City the general could see the arrival of British ships in the harbor. The advantage did not help him win the battle of Paulus Hook, but established this bit of meadow as a valuable place in the history of the emerging nation.
Prior to the creation of the cemetery in 1829, its historical significance dates back to the 1700s as the site of Revolutionary War skirmishes, and of an active ammunition bunker during the War of 1812 that still stands on the grounds.
“The goats love Poison Ivy and any plant with thorns, but have managed to curtail the growth of the invasive weed known as Japanese Knotweed.” – Eileen Markenstein
Now the cemetery is the sacred, eternal resting place for thousands of soldiers from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, as well as the remains of the earliest Jersey City founders, leaders, residents and legends.
With 200 year old English Ivy adorning many of the towering trees and the monumental works of art, this 6-acre sanctuary of peace and unique history is one of the most beautiful natural settings in Jersey City.
Back from the grave?
Although the first graveyard in the state, it became neglected and abandoned in early 2008. Vandals desecrated the place. Homeless people lived here. Junkies and squatters occupied the gate house. The place was so out of sorts, people didn’t want to walk past it on the street. Tombstones were toppled, which was sad for Markenstein because some of her ancestors were buried here.
“I have four generations here,” she said.
There was no roof on the garage. In fact, a tree was growing out of the middle of it. Weather destroyed the equipment stored in it.
She and other volunteers came to the rescue. They formed a new volunteer board of trustees to help restore the cemetery. But it has not been an easy effort, and one of the significant problems has been overgrowth of invasive weeds.
The volunteers performed a study for various methods for invasive plant species management, and tried them all to no avail. They’ve used lawn mowers, machetes, and wet paper mulch, they’ve covered them in plastic to smother them. They even tried digging them out by the roots, only to have little seeds disperse and grow even more weeds. They chose not to use chemicals because of all the natural wildlife that inhabits the 6-acre site, so every few weeks, teams of up to 50 people would cut the weeds down, and two weeks later, they would be back again.
“As soon as you cut them, they grow right back,” she said. “We knew there had to be a better way.”
There are historic plants the chemicals would also destroy, and also do injury to the assortment of other animals that seem to have taken to the place such as wild turkeys, ground hogs, foxes, turtles, and even a few deer.
Goats to the rescue
The goats are on loan from goat herder Larry Cihanek from Rhinebeck, N.Y., who led a successful weed eradication project last summer at Fort Hancock Coast Guard base in Sandy Hook.
When Markenstein asked for his help, she discovered he was something of a history buff and liked the idea of helping restore the old cemetery. Support and funding from the Hudson County Board of Freeholders and a Hudson County Open Space Trust Grant will help to offset some of the project cost.
The goats have made a huge difference in helping the all-volunteer force to clear the hills.
Heifer, a large black and white goat, is the leader of this pack,
“They tend to follow him,” Markenstein said.
The goats got to work right away. But it takes some time and often repeated efforts. Once an area is cleared, the goats move on to other area, but often have to return later. They climb on rocks, on trees, and even on each other to reach weeds. After three or four cleanings, the plants do not return.
If anything, these goats act like young children, constantly climbing and constantly playing. All five love affection, and the treats that a guest can purchase, a handful for a quarter.
The goats arrived in time for earth day in April and have been tackling the overgrowth ever since. They will likely remain until September.
“The goats love poison Ivy and any plant with thorns but have managed to curtain the growth of the invasive weed known as Japanese Knotweed,” Markenstein said. “They also like to dig around and they dug around the old tree trunk where we discovered Native American artifacts.”
The site was once used as a hunting ground for local Native American Indian tribes.
The volunteers need to raise approximately $3,000 each month to pay the operating expenses, make needed repairs, and buy/maintain equipment & supplies. There is no regular revenue or funding. In addition, the volunteers are currently trying to raise $26,000 for a total roof replacement for the historic gatekeeper house on the property built in 1831, where they are housing veterans in exchange for their help as security and groundskeepers.
Upcoming events in the cemetery include a performance of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” by the Hudson Shakespeare Company on Aug. 16 at 7 p.m. A $10 donation is requested.
The Historic Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery & Memorial Park is located at 435 Newark Ave.
If you would like to help, Donations may be made online via their website at www.jerseycitycemetery.org. Individual and group or corporate volunteer teams are always welcomed. For more information please call (201) 707-0738 or (973) 204-9888.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.