Goats clear underbrush for historic cemetery restoration project

Published 8:30 am Friday, February 9, 2024

By ELLEN BRABO

For the Washington Daily News

In an effort to restore the historic Sycamore Burying Ground, the Sycamore Preservation Fund, led by descendants Dr. Bonner Guilford and Steve Bonner, has initiated an unconventional approach – employing goats to clear the overgrown underbrush. 

“The Sycamore Burying Ground holds a deep-rooted history, dating back to the early 18th century,” shared Bonner, emphasizing the historical significance of the site. “It’s not just a cemetery; it’s a reflection of the community’s heritage.”

The cemetery, intricately tied to Sheriff Thomas Bonner and his descendants, boasts graves dating to the mid-1800s, including those of patriots, legislators and figures pivotal to the region’s development.

“Genealogical mentions of Sycamore had been more rumor than fact for years,” explained Bonner. “It was an accidental discussion that led us to uncover its existence.”

The decision to employ goats for underbrush clearing was prompted by the severity of overgrowth and the need to protect the fragile graves and stones. In collaboration with Goats on the Go from the Raleigh area, the project brought in 42 goats to tackle the dense vegetation.

“Our conservation research made it clear that foot traffic could damage the stones, so we needed a solution,” noted Bonner. “Goats were the obvious and safest choice.”

Logistically, the graveyard was enclosed with a construction fence for protection, with plywood covers placed over visible grave areas to safeguard both historical remnants and the goats. The goats, monitored electronically and by herders, are expected to be on-site for a week, their impact carefully assessed.

“We’re here for the long haul,” said Bonner, addressing the commitment of the Sycamore Preservation Fund to the conservation project. “This is a learning project for us, but we’ve surrounded ourselves with professionals, specialists and experts.”

The collaboration extends beyond the preservation fund, involving organizations such as Historic Port of Washington, Brown Library Historic Department, the City of Washington, local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Sons of the American Revolution, North Carolina Regional Historic Preservation and the State Preservation Department. 

“We’re not just preserving a Bonner family cemetery; this is a community historic landmark,” emphasized Bonner.

Community involvement is key, with short presentations planned at local group meetings and a documentary in the works. As the goats diligently clear the underbrush, the Sycamore Cemetery Project sets the stage for a broader restoration effort that reflects the community’s commitment to preserving its historical roots.