Cemeteries are the history of a community, but if they are in disrepair it could leave a gap in the history timeline.
With that in mind, members of the Jefferson County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society and other volunteers have been working to locate older cemeteries, record gravesite information and help preserve countywide burial grounds.
"The society has been asked many times why they are doing this project," said Flora VerStraten, chapter president and historical organizer. "The answer is always the same - the chapter feels the community needs to preserve its area history. If anyone has ever walked through one of the old cemeteries, where beautiful ornate tombstones sit, dating back to our first settlers who arrived in the Ohio Valley, anyone can plainly see that the graves and tombstones hold a wealth of information and historical value for historians and family history researchers.
"So many families have found connections to Jefferson County due to recording the information extracted from tombstones and putting that information on the chapter Web site," she said.
The chapter has located 176 cemeteries, and volunteers will be cleaning and restoring seven cemeteries in the county in the near future.
Volunteers have succeeded in posting various tombstone inscriptions on the chapter Web site at www.jeffcochapter.com.
"We will continue to work in the cemeteries until they have been cleaned and the tombstone inscriptions have been recorded and documented online on our Web site. We are proud to offer this source free, to not only those researching in the United States but those all over the world who access our Web site and find a connection," VerStraten said.
"Our focus is restoration and preservation of tombstones, so we can record inscriptions and get digital photos taken and to disseminate the information on our Web site. That doesn't mean we will never cut down a tree or push a lawn mower, but we will evaluate each cemetery and decide what needs to be done to complete restoration. Much time and manpower have been spent in the maintenance portion of the countywide cemeteries, and many townships have the idea our chapter project is focused on and about cleanup. It is not," VerStraten noted.
The primary focus of the group is to get the tombstones off the ground, reset and repaired.
"We have had several success stories of people locating their ancestors in Jefferson County from our Web site tombstone data. This will be a 'one-stop shopping location,' which will include the most comprehensive cemetery and tombstone records for all county cemeteries," she explained.
The project is not something that will be accomplished in a year or two, according to VerStraten, as the group is always searching for willing volunteers.
And the volunteers come from all over, according to VerStraten.
John Borkowski, co-chairman of the cemetery project and treasurer of the chapter, resides in Kirtland. He is a former Smithfield-Dillonvale resident who chose to get involved with local history.
Genealogical society volunteers Tammy and Terry Hosenfeld are from Adena. She is vice president on the cemetery-finding board, and he is senior trustee. Gail Komar serves as the recording secretary.
VerStraten noted that while she was reviewing old records published by the chapter in the 1960s, she realized updates on the status of area cemeteries were necessary.
This brought about the first meeting in 2002, and now the seventh-annual cemetery project meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 31 at the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Wintersville.
"Anyone interested in learning about the various pioneer cemeteries or would like to volunteer to help with the cleanups or preservation projects are invited to attend," VerStraten said.
VerStraten said some of the group's most difficult work is locating older cemeteries. Volunteers now use GPS navigators and are able to record the locations of all cemeteries. Many times the cemeteries are found covered in weeds and dense overgrowth.
This was the case for Terry and Tammy Hosenfeld, who worked in the Rehoboth Methodist Protestant Cemetery for three years and said they grew to love the cemetery. This was the first Methodist-Protestant church in the Adena area, with the church congregation formed from those from Holmes Methodist Episcopal Church, one mile from Rehoboth, where the Holmes Methodist Cemetery is located.
Rehoboth Cemetery has many unmarked graves, and it once was used by the county health department as an indigent burial location.
The Hosenfelds noted much of the front of the hillside bordering the pasture holds unmarked graves. One grave that touched the hearts of the Hosenfelds was that of a 6-year-old girl who died in a house fire while trying to save her cat and toys. When the grave was found it was a clump of cement with children's marbles in it and a broken stone with no inscription.
The chapter located her family, and the Hosenfelds contacted distant relatives who purchased a stone that now bears the girl's name.
The couple noted five Civil War veterans, a World War I veteran and a World War II veteran are buried in that cemetery.
Island Creek Cemetery in rural Toronto, with some tombstones dating back to the early 1800s, is an example of how trees can damage tombstones. A sandstone marker became part of a tree as it grew, and the tree had to be cut out in sections. The stone will be reset this year when the weather allows, VerStraten explained. Also, a sloping section of the cemetery shows tombstones that have slid over time.
Work by the group in Northern Cemetery in Smithfield saw the 1920s mausoleum cleaned, the marble floor repaired and damage by vandals repaired, and many trees were removed from the cemetery as they were upending stones.
While many church and youth groups have been involved in the location and preservation of area cemeteries, VerStraten noted more volunteers are needed.
"Many are interested and not worried about a little hard work and dirt that is involved in making repairs to the old artifacts called tombstones. Many others just can't do the physical lifting or digging necessary, so they volunteer to read tombstone inscriptions or take digital photos or type spreadsheets. There is plenty of work for anyone interested, and the more experienced volunteers will teach and train anyone willing to get involved," she said.
Local government officials, including mayors and township trustees, are invited to attend the informal meetings.
"We will discuss how we can help knowing that the townships do not have enough employees or funding to care for the old cemeteries, many from no fault of their own," VerStraten said. "We stress that we do not want to cut the grass, we want to reset and repair old tombstones and record history."
Most of these remote pioneer cemeteries fall under the jurisdiction and care of township trustees, some village mayors or cemetery boards.
Borkowski noted it is important that the society continues to provide archival supplies, skills and volunteers to fill the void where government employees and funding are lacking.
VerStraten added archival cleaners and epoxies are used on old stones to prevent damage through time, and metal probes are used to locate stones buried under the soil. She noted jacks and tripods to lift and reset stones are needed, and trustees or a local farmer's loan of a front-end loader is appreciated.
She explained Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla works with the group, sending inmates to help with cleanups as well as local judges assigning offenders to work by performing community service projects.
"This has been a good working relationship with the local law enforcement over the past few years. The chapter is hoping that more mayors and judges throughout the county will assign community service in the cemeteries," VerStraten said.
Chapter members will be working in the following cemeteries starting April 1:
Piney Fork Cemetery, Smithfield Township, tombstones will be reset and repaired. Also, stumps and vines need to be removed.
Wilson Cemetery, Mount Pleasant Township, probing for sunken stones and resetting, repairing and recording tombstones.
Warrenton Cemetery, Warren Township, probing, resetting and repairing tombstones.
Hopewell Cemetery, Warren Township, evaluating and resetting tombstones.
Island Creek Cemetery, Island Creek Township, resetting and probing continuing from last year.
Northern Cemetery, Smithfield Township, resetting and repairs.
The group is continuing to search for unknown pioneer cemeteries or those before 1900.
"We have a challenge within our group. Volunteers are hoping someone can trip me up and tell me about a cemetery or location we have not already recorded. I hope that day does come so we can find more cemeteries we didn't know existed," VerStraten said.
In explaining what qualifies as a cemetery, VerStraten noted even one burial plot makes that area a cemetery.
"If it were your ancestor, wouldn't you consider it a hallowed, sacred place?" she asked.
(McCoy can be contacted at email@example.com.)