It’s a “magnum opus.”

That’s how Trish Okamoto, curator of the Nodaway Valley Historical Museum in Clarinda, described ongoing work to identify burial sites and clean tombstones at rural Page County cemeteries.

She provided details of the effort, which is part of the museum’s

“Adopt a Grave” project, at the First Sunday program May 7 at the museum.

When the project was launched, Okamoto said, participants thought that “we’ll do three or four days at every cemetery, and we’ll be done in just a few years. But we spent all last year at five cemeteries.”

She added: “Keep in mind that we have 51 cemeteries in our county.”

At present there are more than 40 people - youths and adults - involved in the project. “We always need more help,” Okamoto said. 

Basic information about the cemeteries is obtained from official sources, such as land records.

“We’ve located six burials in the county that nobody knew about, and we found them off old land documents,” Okamoto said.

But other details about the cemeteries often come from current owners of the land where the burial plots are situated. “What the landowners provide can also be very important,” Okamoto said.

After a map of a cemetery is created using a computer-assisted drawing program, the on-site work can commence.

Project participants utilize a variety of tools when at a cemetery, with the items kept in buckets that are carried from place to place.

One vital tool is a brush used to clean the surfaces of the tombstones without damaging them. “The brush has to be soft enough that you could use it on your teeth,” Okamoto said.

Because solutions containing vinegar or bleach cannot be used, a special cleaner is required. It is called “D2,” and costs about $50 a gallon.

“We use it in spray bottles,” Okamoto said, noting that the procedure is to coat a tombstone with the material, then “move on.” The cleaner gradually removes any moss present on the stone.

To search for tombstones that have sunk below ground, metal probes are employed. When a stone is discovered, it is dug up and cleaned.

After that has been done, the stone is placed exactly where it was found, “just on the off chance our records [regarding location] are wrong,” Okamoto said.

Along with finding graves, work at the cemeteries includes removing bushes and other vegetation that obscure individual plots.

During work at the Hawleyville Cemetery last year, 22 graves were unearthed in one day. One plot had six graves in it.

Okamoto said the cemetery is particularly interesting because it is the burial location for Biddy Hall, a former slave who came to the county after the Civil War.

“We don’t know exactly where she is buried,” Okamoto said. “There is no marker. But we keep hoping to find her stone.”

Project participants have also worked at Davis Cemetery southeast of Clarinda and Vise Cemetery east of town, and are planning to go to Butler Cemetery near Shambaugh. At that site, an estimated 20 graves are in need of repair, with 15 of them beneath the ground.

Stones have been located on the Hadden Cemetery north of Essex, and work will be scheduled there as well.

Okamoto said there are two primary expenses related to the project - purchasing the D2 cleaner and arranging for portable rest-rooms to be transported to and from the cemetery sites.

Last year Cornerstone Bank in Clarinda sponsored work days, and this year Bank Iowa in Clarinda will provide financial support.

Project participants have been invited to give a presentation at the Preserve Iowa Summit in Fort Dodge in June, and will also attend a workshop given by Jonathan Appell, a national monuments conservator.

In addition to the work associated with rural cemeteries, those involved with the “Adopt a Grave” project can focus on specific graves at the Clarinda Cemetery. Tombstones there can be cleaned and kept free of vegetation, and research can be done on individuals buried at selected sites.

The research can lead to a deceased individual becoming the subject of a portrayal during the museum’s annual Cemetery Walk.

Okamoto said biographies have been compiled on numerous people interred in the cemetery, and “the number has been increasing each year.”

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