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Friday, 29 November 2013 13:54

Preservation efforts give new life to old gravestones

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Restoration efforts at Beloit’s Oakwood Cemetery had fallen into disrepair until volunteers and the city began cleaning and repairing many of the headstones. Restoration efforts at Beloit’s Oakwood Cemetery had fallen into disrepair until volunteers and the city began cleaning and repairing many of the headstones. Photo provided

STATELINE NEWS-- In 2011 Peggy Walrath, an enthusiastic amateur genealogist, wrote to a cemetery caretaker in Geneva, N.Y. to see if he could find the headstone of her mother’s step-sister who died at the age of 2 1/2 in 1897.

Records showed she was buried there, but the caretaker couldn’t find her. Walrath was disappointed, but the caretaker promised not to give up.

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Two years later, the caretaker contacted Walrath to tell her he finally had found the headstone of her ancestor, and not only that, he’d dug it up, cleaned it and set it back up in its original spot.

 

Around the country, many turn-of-the-century cemeteries are experiencing similar issues. Over time, markers and monuments have been knocked down and damaged from vandalism or old age. As the seasons pass, the elements begin to bury these memorials underground where they become lost to time.

The cemeteries here in Beloit are no exception.

Walrath, who lives next to Oakwood Cemetery, decided that one good turn deserved another and began a personal quest to uncover the ancestors of others, just as the New York caretaker had done for her.

"I started uncovering stones in the cemetery on July 23 when I took my dog for a walk and discovered that we were actually walking on buried stones," Walrath said. "I’ve uncovered 147 so far, many with just a spade and whisk broom. I’ve tried to keep track of them. If there is a name I can read, I feel like they are my people now and I’d love to see their stones restored," Walrath said.

Many people walking by wouldn’t even notice the hundreds of fallen stones, including the headstone of Horace White, one of Beloit College’s most famous alums who went on to cover Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War for the Chicago Tribune.

As the cemetery coordinator for the city of Beloit, Robert Pokorney is no stranger to the need for restoration at the Oakwood Cemetery. Last year he had a chance occurrence of his own. While getting supplies at a department store, he noticed a truck with the logo of a company that specialized in cemetery restoration.

Pokorney took the opportunity to meet Mark Davis of Stone Saver Cemetery Restoration and Helen Wildermuth of Stonehugger Cemetery Restoration, who were up from their home base in Indiana doing work in Rockton and Roscoe.

Originally Pokorney just wanted to ask for a few tips on restoring headstones, but it evolved into something more.

"There’s a soldier monument that stands guard at the front of the cemetery that was vandalized two years ago for the second or third time," Pokorney said. "It was broken so badly that I spent all last winter drilling and pinning him back together, and I just wanted to make sure I was doing it the right way. They came over and took a look at my work, we talked about how to repair and put some longevity into these markers, and they gave me their cards."

According to Pokorney, he’s had restoration plans on the table for several years, but they have been cost prohibitive with the resources available. After seeing how passionate Wildermuth and Davis were about their craft and the quality of their work, Pokorney started to think that they were the right people for the job.

"I talked to director of parks Brian Ramsey and supervisor of parks Mark Edwards, and we all sat down and were able to come up with the funding to do a limited phase one restoration on some of these markers that have been broken through vandalism over the decades," Pokorney said.

Because Davis and Wildermuth make their way to Rockton and Roscoe every year to do restorations there, Pokorney set it up this year to have some restorations completed in Oakwood. Davis and Wildermuth arrived in October with a crew of eight and stayed for a week. They fully restore a total of 27 stones, and if you ask Walrath or Pokorney, it was worth it.

"They hand clean them with these little plastic wheels on their drills and they spray them; it doesn’t hurt the marker at all," Pokorney said. "Once they have them cleaned they come up with a plan on how to repair it. If it needs pinning, they drill two alignment holes and put in a stainless rod so it won’t deteriorate. The results are incredible. They look as if they were brand new."

"The finished stones are beautiful," Walrath said. "Pride and respect have been given back to the deceased. The names and dates can be read again and that’s how it should be."

Pokorney even feels that the restoration will act in part as a new deterrent against future vandalism. In his experience, the most vandalized markers and monument have been the ones that were weakest, or rocked when you leaned against them. These markers would become targets because they were the easiest to damage. But the method Davis and Wildermuth used to reset them made them stronger and firmer than ever before.

In addition, now that the restoration has been completed, Pokorney has asked the police to do a few more patrols when possible, and made contact with members of the community who walk the grounds regularly to keep and eye out for any suspicious activity.

Even though Pokorney is pleased with the results, his plan doesn’t stop there. Pokorney already is looking into having Davis and Wildermuth come back next year, but in addition to the normal amount of funding, he plans to initiate a sponsorship program that would allow members of the community to sponsor a cleaning or restoration. Pokorney admits that it’s a lot of work, but something so steeped in history is worth saving.

"It’s got all the city’s history wrapped up in it. If you go through there you see just about every street and school name in Beloit on a marker; it’s rich with local history," Pokorney said.

With much more of the project ahead than behind, Pokorney has his work cut out for him, but he’d like to see the restoration complete, and members of the community like Walrath couldn’t agree more.

"There are over 320 fallen tablets in the old section that need standing back up once they’re cleaned and repaired, plus the monuments and hundreds more that need cleaning," Walrath said. "It says a lot about a city if they do or don’t care enough to take care of the early citizens. I’d love to see it fully restored, as it should be. We all have to remember where we came from and where we’ll all be someday."

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