A bright American Holly at Rural Cemetery for New Bedford’s forgotten children

American Holly and headstones at Rural Cemetery. Photo by Paul Pawlowski.

by Steven Froias
Contributing Writer

In the midst of winter, it’s nice to gaze at something brilliant and vibrant – even if it’s among the dead.

Yes, Trees of New Bedford is once again in one of the city’s historic cemeteries.  After Oak Grove in November and Pine Grove in December, we thought it only fair to visit Rural Cemetery, pictured above – especially since it offers us an amazing American Holly tree for our series.  But we promise to come above ground in February in a different sort of location and let our former citizens finally rest in peace!

However, in January, we are indeed walking through history in this most storied of places.  Rural Cemetery, like this month’s American holly tree, remains a beacon in New Bedford due to its prime location between Rockdale Avenue and Dartmouth Street and its frequent use for the duty assigned this land.

Indeed, as a place of final rest and as a piece of city history, Rural Cemetery looms large in the imagination.  However, its current special place in the collective conscious was not always assured – or even very much valued once upon a time.

According to its application to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Rural Cemetery is not one graveyard but two.  It and Friends Cemetery together cover 91.35 acres of land on the west side of New Bedford where the city borders the town of Dartmouth.  In fact, Dartmouth at one time actually ceded some land to the city for Rural Cemetery – and without a shot being fired in either direction!

Way back in 1835, at least one hundred lots at Rural Cemetery were available to be sold at auction, but there is no evidence that burials took place on the ground before 1837.  In 1841, the towns of New Bedford and Dartmouth agreed to alter the boundary between them so that Rural Cemetery would lie entirely within New Bedford. By 1843 the cemetery contained 330 lots on seven acres, part of it subdivided but not yet sold as lots, and another part entirely undeveloped.

On January 20, 1848, the 224 lot owners at Rural Cemetery conveyed the burial ground to New Bedford, which had incorporated as a city the year before.  At that time the city also acquired all unoccupied land, bought an adjacent parcel, built an iron gate, graded the avenues, and repaired what fencing existed around the cemetery.

In 1849 the city sold a tract of slightly more than two acres to the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends, which reinterred the bodies that had been buried at the 1793 Friends Cemetery on the New Bedford waterfront.  Today, both Rural and the much smaller Friends Cemetery are managed by the City of New Bedford.

Despite all this care and attention, Rural Cemetery did not burst upon the scene enjoying the popularity of Oak Grove Cemetery to the north on Parker Street.

The site lacked “natural beauty,” according to James Bunker Congdon, one of New Bedford’s most prominent historians.  At the time, Congdon declared it regrettable that in selecting the site for Rural Cemetery “no regard was paid to that universal sentiment that allies the beauties of nature with our ideas of an appropriate resting-place for the departed.”

Regardless, Congdon conceded that “the hand of affection” was beginning, by 1843, “to compensate for the absence of natural appeal at Rural Cemetery,” the National Register application reports.  He wrote that “neat and permanent fences guard the little enclosures; trees are beginning to spread around that air of protection and seclusion so grateful to him who seeks the church-yard path; and in many a spot where the treasures of the heart are buried, are found springing up the forms and hues of floral loveliness.”

The ‘floral loveliness’ referred to by Congdon most likely was due to the efforts of Henry Howland Crapo (1804-69), who became involved in the cemetery’s oversight and introduced some synergy into the space.

In the 1840s, Crapo founded Wasemequia Nursery, which surrounded his home and was only a few blocks east of Rural Cemetery.  The nursery offered all kinds of fruit and ornamental trees, roses, vines, and shrubs. Regular readers of Trees of New Bedford may recall that New Bedford’s elite were heavily involved in horticulture, most prominently at the James Arnold Mansion overseen by James and Sarah Arnold.  James Arnold and Henry Crapo were co-founders of the Horticultural Society of New Bedford.

It is at least possible, the Register application states, “that Crapo created the nursery to furnish plantings for the cemetery as well as for the grounds of the city’s more affluent residents.’  After laying the groundwork for a more appealing Rural Cemetery, Crapo left the city for Flint, Michigan in the 1860s.

In 1868, the acquisition of a further 70 acres by the city for Rural Cemetery allowed its true rural character to emerge.  By 1892, another historian, Leonard Bolles Ellis, declared it was now an “appropriate and picturesque spot.”

> Be sure to Scroll down below for American Holly Details & Uses <

Naturally, like Oak Grove, Rural Cemetery attracted its share of New Bedford notables upon their death.  It is arguable as to which resting place boasts the lion’s share of boldface names, but the “presence” of Albert Bierstadt alone confers a level of artistic distinction upon Rural Cemetery that assures it a special place in history and is even called out on Google Earth.  So much so that as recently as the year 2017 the New Bedford Preservation Society gave a guided tour of the graves of artists and artisans there who gained renown in life and a degree of aesthetic immortality in death.

They are joined by persons like John Avery Parker – recognized as New Bedford’s first millionaire – and Charles S. Ashley – the city’s longest serving mayor.

Yet, in considering the legacy of Rural Cemetery through the perpetual promise of this month’s American holly tree, other residents command attention.

First are the forgotten children of the city.  Research for the Register application discovered that “Rural Cemetery…has separate lots for the New Bedford Orphans’ Home, in which at least ten children were buried between 1869 and 1902.

“The home was founded in 1843 after Eliza Grinnell, the unmarried daughter of whaling and shipping merchant Cornelius Grinnell, Jr. and his wife Eliza Tallman Russell, left a $1,000 bequest (approximately $35,000 today) for ‘relieving, educating, and improving the condition of destitute children.’”

In 1892, according to historian Leonard Bolles Ellis, 32 children lived at the home, at the corner of Cove Street and West Rodney French Boulevard in the city’s south end.

Their corner of Rural Cemetery features a polished-granite obelisk with a Gothic arch and the institution’s name in a shallow, rectangular recess on the front face. The gravestones are child-size marble tablets with basket and round tops, many – but not all – inscribed with only the name of the deceased child.

The need to care for orphaned children became acute in the city primarily due to the demands and strains of working in the whaling industry.  The Orphan’s Home transformed over time into Child & Family Services and is one of the oldest nonprofit organizations in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Its history reveals that the group “began as the New Bedford Orphans’ Home in 1843 to help children left homeless and without families during the whaling era. There were children without parents, orphaned by mothers who died and by fathers lost at sea. There were children left to beg on the streets, often forced to steal to seek out their paltry existence.”

History further shows that, prior to the lot for orphans, the New Bedford Mariner’s Home, founded in 1851 to house transient seamen, also maintained a lot at Rural Cemetery.

“The plot is marked by a low granite curb terminating in two short granite posts with octagonal, pyramidal tops; these posts flank a curved step engraved ‘Mariners Home’,” the Register report reveals. “Eleven of the fourteen markers in the plot are flush, several of them inscribed ‘unknown mariner;’ and the earliest marker is dated 1879.”

Though neither the seaman nor their offspring became boldfaced names of their age or reverberate down through the decades since their death, they should be no less important and cherished in New Bedford’s history.

In Rural Cemetery – which took its own time to gain respect – we can honor their memory and reflect on their contribution to the city from under the nearby bright green limbs of a beautiful American holly tree.

That ensures they remain ever alive to those reading this today…


American Holly at Rural Cemetery

By: Joseph Ingoldsby, ASLA, Landscape Architect

  • Common Name:  American Holly
  • Botanical Name:  Ilex opaca

Location of this month’s Tree of New Bedford:  Rural Cemetery, 149 Dartmouth Street, New Bedford.  It is found along the main route to the right soon after entering the cemetery.


  • w3w address:  caller.gates.hoping
  • Circumference:  at chest height the tree trunk is close to 54” in circumference.
  • Diameter:  it is approximately 18” in diameter.
  • Height: (approx.) 40’.
  • Age:  This specimen is estimated to be 108 years old , which means it could have been planted as a small memorial tree sometime around the end of WWI.


  • Distinguishing features: American holly is an upright, pyramidal evergreen with symmetrical branching sweeping to the ground.  The leathery leaves are elliptic–lanceolate in shape with spines that line the edges of the olive-green leaves.  Female trees bear red berry-like fruit in autumn that festoon the holly trees in winter. 
  • Spring features: Holly trees are dioecious.  The male holly has staminate, pollen-laden flowers in clusters.  The female trees have single white pistillate flowers with ovaries.  Holly trees flower from late spring to early summer. The female flowers will produce holly berries when fertilized by pollinators. 
  • Summer features: American holly is native to Cape Cod and the south coast of Massachusetts, where it can be found on the moist edge of the sand plain as an understory tree.  Its pyramidal evergreen form and spiny, leathery leaves help to identify the holly in summer. 
  •  Fall features: American holly berries color up in late autumn to a dull red on ¼-½” rounded drupes.  The evergreen foliage is a deep green. 
  • Winter features: “Deck the halls with boughs of holly” is a familiar traditional yuletide carol that speaks to the beauty of the holly in winter that adds to the celebratory mood of the holidays and New Year. 
  • Crown: The outline of the American holly varies from a pyramidal shape in youth to an open, irregular, picturesque habit in old age.  In the north, American holly can reach from 15 to 35’ over time in protected locations. In southern bottomlands, American hollies have historically topped 100’ in height with centuries of growth.  Today, the national champions are 74’ by 48’ in Alabama and 55’ by 51’ in Virginia. (1.) 
  • Use:  Holly is best known as a seasonal berried evergreen Christmas decoration for wreaths and garlands. Native stands of southern grown American holly have been decimated for berried boughs of holly.  However, Hollywood is not just another name for Tinseltown, it is the wood of American holly, which is used as a veneer and inlay on the finest cabinetry, for ornamental carving, as well as for violin pegs and fingerboards, and when dyed black, as a replacement for ebony piano keys. (2.)  American holly berries provide winter food for a range of winter birds including wood thrush, cardinals, robins, catbirds, and mockingbirds.  The dense spiny foliage provides safe cover from predators for nesting and roosting birds. The tree is used in native habitat restorations. For home use, there are superior, faster growing hollies with better foliage and larger fruits.  However, unlike the meserveae blue hollies, American holly is not touched by browsing deer.
  • History in the USA:  South Coastal Massachusetts and Cape Cod and the Islands are the northernmost range of the American holly.  Ilex opaca occurs from Massachusetts to Florida, west through the Gulf States, north to southeastern Missouri. 
  1. Michael Dirr, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Stipes Publishing, LLC, 1998. 2. R. M. Krinard, American Holly, an American wood, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, October 1973


Notes for the American Holly

by: Justin Ohlson, New Bedford City Arborist 

Medicinal uses 

Like the Red Cedar highlighted in last month’s edition, most parts of the American holly tree have been used for medicinal purposes.  The leaves were boiled down and the drink was used to alleviate cold, flu, measles and phenomena like symptoms. The leaves were also used on the skin as a remedy for sores and itchiness.  The bark was ground down and this too was once used in the form of a tea to help alleviate symptoms of epilepsy and malaria. 

Wildlife benefits

Birds such as blue jays, cedar waxwings, robins, mockingbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, and wild turkey eat the fruits (but not the leaves) of American holly, as do raccoon and deer.  These fruits are also an important food source in the winter for songbirds. In return, the birds carry holly seeds to new areas.

Wood uses

The wood is used to make whip handles, engraving blocks, and cabinets.  It can also be dyed and used as a substitute for ebony and the lighter hard wood is used for specialty items such as piano keys.

Urban forest note

Holly trees are mostly discovered in nature as understory in woods and forests but can and do serve the purpose as a street tree in some areas of Massachusetts.  The attractive leaves that persist year-round complemented by the vibrant red berry’s in mid-autumn would add a nice and unique touch amongst our urban forest on private properties, in parks, and as specimen plantings in open spaces where there is room for them to grow to full shape and size.