Students restore stones, dignity

Cleaning at Davis Cemetery in rural Page County are Chase McAndrews, Drake Riddle and Colby McAndrews. 

Local veterans dating as far back as the Civil War are having their memory preserved by the efforts of the Clarinda students involved in the Adopt-A-Grave program.

Coordinated by the Nodaway Valley Historical Museum, the Adopt-A-Grave program maps existing tombstones located in Page County. The students also identify lost or damaged tombstones. The group then cleans the tombstones and makes any necessary repairs.

“Our goal is to restore and bring awareness to the pioneer cemeteries in Page County,” Chase McAndrews said.

Formed in 2013, the program is overseen by Nodaway Valley Historical Museum curator Trish Bergren. A group of five students at Clarinda High School manage the program, while 39 students and 12 adults assist with the projects undertaken by the organization.

There are 50 cemeteries in Page County, all of which are considered pioneer cemeteries. They include city cemeteries; county cemeteries; cemeteries located on private land like a railroad worker cemetery located southeast of Clarinda; and the Clarinda Mental Health Institute cemetery.

“We are making sure these people are not totally forgotten and shown the respect they deserve. Imagine if they had not migrated to Page County. They paved the way for us,” Matthew Barnes said.

Bergren estimated 750 stones have been located, cleaned or repaired since the program was founded. A good share of those tombstones belonged to veterans.

One veteran of the Revolutionary War, Daniel Dow, is buried in Page County. However, the bylaws of that cemetery prevent maintenance of the site or the graves.

Still, Bergren said the group has worked on tombstones belonging to the veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. “We have not done a lot with veterans of Korea or Vietnam since the stones are newer and of a better design,” she said.

Barnes said being able to restore the tombstone of a military veteran carries special significance for him.

“There is an added sense of respect since you know they gave so much for our country,” Barnes said.

Although Tatum Watkins and McAndrews also appreciate the great sacrifices made by veterans, they said every restored tombstone is uniquely important.

“Yes, our veterans have done amazing things for our country, but there are just as many other people that deserve recognition,” Watkins said. “It is really interesting to find someone, say from the 1870s, and be able to preserve their ancestry. That person may have been forgotten, which is sad, but if their family comes back to that cemetery, they can see who they are because of the work we do on the tombstones,” Watkins said.

“They made great sacrifices, but there are so many stones that need recognition it is hard to isolate the veterans. They are all significant,” McAndrews said.

The idea for forming the Adopt-A-Grave program came after Bergren and her daughter, Isabel Solivan, found a misplaced stone in 2012. Bergren said they looked through two cemeteries to locate the tombstone. The excitement she saw in her daughter over solving a historic mystery like that prompted Bergren to get others involved.

“I started volunteering with Trish eight years ago. I was involved when Isabel found that stone. Seeing that interested me and then Trish and I did a tour of all the cemeteries,” McAndrews said.

As the organization started to grow, the members turned their attention from mapping cemeteries to working on the tombstones. To ensure the students were taking proper care of the markers, Bergren did some research and found the website of national monuments conservator Jonathan Appel of Connecticut.

Based on the website and videos developed by Appel, as well as personal correspondence with him, the group learned the basic techniques for cleaning and repairing tombstones. As the efforts of the Adopt-A-Grave program expanded, the group was contacted in 2017 by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and the Iowa Historical Society.

“They wanted information on our group and offered to pay the expenses for our kids to go to Fort Dodge for a workshop with Jonathan Appel. They wanted us to work with him so we could teach others how to do it,” Bergren said.

Barnes, McAndrews and Watkins were all able to attend the workshop with Appel.

“When we first got there we walked around looking at different stones and assessing what was wrong with them. He showed us how to go a step further and repair the stones. I learned more in a day than I had in the Adopt-A-Grave program up until then,” Barnes said.

“We also learned how to make the stones look pretty. It was really educational because he taught us about a lot of new products we could use,” Watkins said.

“It was pretty amazing meeting and being able to study with the leading conservator of cemeteries in the world. That’s something you do not easily forget. It was amazing to learn the same things we were doing here in the Midwest were what he was doing in other areas,” McAndrews said.

Over the years, the three students have refined their skills to make the restoration process as efficient and inexpensive as possible.

First, using the original records for the cemetery, a map team walks the cemetery identifying the stones. If a stone is missing, a probe is used to determine if the stone is now buried underground or if it has been moved or taken.

Once the buried stones are dug up, work starts on cleaning the stones. An environmentally friendly chemical, D2, is used to clean the stones. Bergren said the D2 cleaner costs $50 per gallon and is the most expensive part of the restoration process. Yet, the results make the investment worthwhile.

“You are able to see visible progress as you move forward. You can tell which sections you’ve worked on,” McAndrews said.

Finally, any necessary repairs are made to the tombstones. During the annual Cemetery Walk held Oct. 12-13 at the Clarinda Cemetery, Barnes gave a demonstration on the repair process as he fixed two stones in the original Page County section of the cemetery.

“Thin tablet stones usually break near the base at ground level. So I cast a new base from concrete, reset the stone with a special product called historic pointing mortar and then clean it again. That is a standard repair. For larger or multi-tiered stones, I use a tripod system to lift the layers back up onto the stone,” Barnes said.

Since the Cemetery Walk, the group has received approval from the city of Clarinda to continue with the restoration of the original stones in the Page County section of the cemetery.

The students agree they receive a great deal of satisfaction from being a part of such a worthwhile undertaking. They hope their hard work is restoring the serenity of the cemeteries for local families and their loved ones buried there.

“Once the tombstones have been fixed and cleaned, I like going back to the cemetery and seeing the finished product,” Watkins said.

“I enjoy the whole process. When I’m working at a cemetery, it’s my therapy,” Barnes said. “I never get frustrated working at a cemetery because it is such a peaceful place.”

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