PORTLAND, Maine — Closing his eyes, Ron Romano can see Bartlett Adams walking up the Portland peninsula and gazing across the Eastern Cemetery for the first time.
It was September, in the year 1800. Adams, 24, fresh from an apprenticeship in Boston, was setting up shop as Portland’s first professional gravestone cutter. City dwellers died at the rate of one person every three days and the burial ground must have been pocked with fresh graves. Resting places, if noted at all, bore rough-carved markers of rock or wood. A few slate stones, purchased and hauled to town via packet ships from the south, also stood.
“He shows up, and he’s like, ‘You know what? I can make this work,’” Romano said.
And make it work he did.
Over the next three decades, Adams’ shop produced nearly all the headstones under which Portlanders were buried. When he died, 28 years later, the Eastern Cemetery was bristling with 700 elegantly carved stones from Adams’ shop on Federal Street, just a few blocks away.
“We don’t see many — if any — stones from the Boston shops after Bartlett arrives,” Romano said, looking out over the sea of markers at the foot of Munjoy Hill. “Especially in this cemetery.”
Though he left behind a mountain of monuments, Adams himself is largely a mystery. No likenesses of him survive. Almost all his work is unsigned and anonymous.
To remedy that and to reveal Adams’ importance to Portland’s early days, Romano has written a new book about the prolific and unknown carver called “ Early Gravestones in Southern Maine: The Genius of Bartlett Adams” for The History Press.
“He was really an unsung hero, in my view,” Romano said. “He was an integral part of this community.”
As evidence, Romano points to Bartlett’s monetary pledge for construction of the First Parish Church in 1825, his early investment in the Portland Observatory and his place on the board of the Charitable Mechanics Association. He also was a family man, having seven children, though only one survived to adulthood. Plus, he was good at what he did.
“He was a smart business guy,” Romano said. “He was rocking this area with stones. He was just pumping them out like crazy.”
Though prolific, Adams also was an artist. His slate stones always bear precise inscriptions and clear images. Graceful willows bow over classical urns. Rising suns poke symmetrical rays over chiseled horizons. Winged faces, frozen in stone for nearly 200 years, flutter skyward.
It was those icons that drew Romano, 58, to Adams’ work.
Romano, grew up in town and graduated from Deering High School in 1976. After a career in Boston’s insurance industry, he retired back home in 2011. That’s when he entered the Eastern Cemetery for the first time, researching a genealogy project and first saw Adams’ work, which still stood out.
“I came in one day, and I walked around, and I was like, ‘holy smokes, they’re all over the place,’ and I loved the look of them,” Romano said.
His fascination led him to join Spirits Alive, a group that looks after the cemetery. It also spurred him into leading a massive, stone-by-stone survey of the Eastern Cemetery in 2013, looking for Adams’ unsigned work.
“I spent the summer doing that,” he said. “And at the end of that exercise, I had 700 grave markers that I could attribute to Bartlett Adams’ shop — he and the guys working with him,” Romano said.
Eventually, Romano went afield, to surrounding cemeteries and towns in a 30-mile radius, finding even more stones from Adams’ shop. From Buxton to Harpswell to Gray, his work still stands. Romano even uncovered a batch of stones in Nova Scotia.
“We’re up to about 1,800 stones now,” he said.
But he’s not done.
“I know there’s way more out there that I haven’t seen yet,” he said.
Romano knows it took two or three days to cut an average stone. Adams had two or three men working for him once he got established, and he was in business in Portland for nearly 30 years. That leaves thousands more stones to discover, Romano figures.
If he had a time machine, Romano said he would skip meeting with famous historical characters like Abraham Lincoln and go straight to Adams.
“I’ve got a slew of questions for him,” he said.
Ron Romano will host a book launch event at the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, at 519 Congress St. A list of his upcoming talks can be found at the Spirits Alive website.