John Walters, a tombstone restoration expert from Connersville, Ind., said he gets plenty of phone calls asking for help. His nickname is the "Graveyard Groomer."
Walters estimated that he has worked on almost 10,000 tombstones that have become unreadable. "I quit keeping track after 3,000," he said. He blamed lichen, a growth formed by the combination of algae and fungi, car and truck exhaust, and commercial weed killers.
Simply washing a tombstone's surface with ammonia and water can often improve its condition significantly, according to Walters.
Grave markers made from granite are "practically weather-proof," Walters said. But granite did not come into widespread use until after 1900. It's the marble and limestone tombstones of the 19th century that are most likely to be found in critical condition.
How long Catharine Kellum's white marble headstone remained upright, no one knows, but at some point over the next 184 years, it was knocked over and busted into 27 pieces.
The relentless cycles of wind and rain, freezes and thaws took a toll and the pieces slowly sank beneath the ground.
The last trace of Catharine Kellum was gone, a casualty of time and bureaucratic indifference. As a practical matter, she never existed, since that stone was the only tangible proof she ever walked the Earth.
And it would have remained that way for eternity, except this small eastern Indiana county employs a full-time person whose job is to locate, repair and rehabilitate old pioneer cemeteries.
None of the other 91 Counties does this.
"That's very unusual. There is no other County in the state that pays someone to resurrect old cemeteries," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties.
ZZ Top look
The lone gravestone restorer is John Walters, Fayette County Pioneer Cemetery Supervisor, whose long spade beard and tangled curls would make him look right at home in the rock group ZZ Top.
He's also a member of the National Association for Gravestone Studies and wears its official T-shirt, which features a tombstone bearing the epitaph:
"Stranger stop and cast an eye,
as you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be.
Prepare for death and follow me."
He last shaved and cut his hair seven years ago for a job interview in an Indianapolis blast furnace blower factory.
"I shaved and got all dolled up for a job that lasted three months," he sighed. "I'll never do that again."
County Commissioner David Pflum, who gets regular haircuts, was skeptical when he met wild man Walters several years ago.
"You first take a look at him and you wonder, 'Does this guy know what he's doing?' " said Pflum.
Walters, 43, had worked for the County Highway Department and one of his duties was cutting the grass around old, neglected cemeteries. He noticed the deplorable conditions of the old stones, many broken or blackened with moss and lichen, making the inscriptions unreadable.
"It bothered the hell out of me. These are outdoor history museums, carved in stone. If they don't matter why don't we just throw away all the history books, too, and get rid of the history teachers?"
On his own time, he researched old cemeteries in the Fayette County library, reading about the lives of many of the pioneers who were buried in them. In many cases, there was no written record of who was buried in the cemeteries, which meant they officially didn't exist.
He immersed himself in the arcane study of gravestone repair and restoration, reading every book he could find and phoning experts around the country, peppering them with questions:
How do you repair a 300-pound, 190-year-old stone that's broken into 25 pieces? Do you use glue or screws? How do you clean moss, fungus and crusted lichen off marble and limestone? Will chemicals damage the stone? How about bleach?
In the summer of 1996 he approached David Pflum and the other two commissioners with a bold proposal to hire him as a cemetery restoration specialist.
"A what?" asked David Pflum.
Walters' passion and encyclopedic knowledge of gravestone restoration prevailed and impressed the Commissioners.
"People here care about those old graveyards," said Pflum. "John convinced us we had a problem that needed solving. These gravestones are of great historical value and I believe the measure of any civilization is how well we protect the gravesites of previous generations."
Walters was hired as the state's only cemetery restoration specialist in August 1996 and his work has yielded impressive results.
He's restored eight entire cemeteries, cleaning and resetting hundreds of old stones. He's pieced together 187 crumbling or broken stones, some of which had to be dug up and painstakingly glued and screwed back together.
"It don't take a rocket scientist to do this, but it does take a heart," said Walters. "And I got one of them."
He's taken thousands of pictures and recorded the inscriptions on hundreds of stones and officially entered their locations in the county recorder's office, so a future developer can't pave over the graves and claim no cemetery ever existed.
"I do cemeteries in my sleep," Walters explained recently while studying the April 10, 1859, gravestone of Joseph Whitlock, which he recently discovered broken and buried in a field on Joe Rose's farm along Hwy. 1.
People often call Walters with tips about abandoned cemeteries. Walters and his part-time assistant, Fred Lakes, visited the Rose farm and poked the ground with a metal probe. They found Joseph Whitlock's stone 16 inches underground. Then they uncovered Sally A. Risk's 1856 stone. They brought them both to a county warehouse just south of the courthouse. Using plain water and brushes, they will clean them, reattach the pieces with epoxy glue, photograph them, record the inscriptions and reset them in the Old Parrott Cemetery in Joe Rose's field.
In a little over three years, he has discovered 20 forgotten cemeteries. He found the Orange Township gravestones of aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright's grandparents, Catharine and Dan Wright. "They were in an old thicket laying on the ground," said Walters.
Old records indicate there are 94 pre-1850 cemeteries scattered around Fayette County's nine townships. Walters has found all but 21.
"Nothing is ever really lost," he said. "It's just a matter of time. I'll find them."
The county pays him a whopping $19,720 annual salary. He's never cared much about money, though. He once lived in a teepee for a year to see if he could do it. Best year of his life, he said. He's plenty smart, but he was a minimum-wage grass cutter because he liked being outside.
"Anyone who has a passion for their work will do a great job," said a pleased Commissioner Pflum.
Walters is passionate. He talks hard and fast, jumbling one story into the next, pulling out pictures of gravestones he's found, darting about the warehouse extolling the virtues of epoxy glue and the fun he had last summer at the Washington, D.C., annual convention of the National Association for Gravestone Studies.
"I brake for old graveyards," warns the bumper sticker on his county pickup truck.
He paid for the Washington trip himself and spent a week working with restoration specialists in the Congressional Cemetery. "What John is accomplishing could be a model program for the entire state," said Lois Mauk, state coordinator of the Indiana Pioneer Cemeteries Restoration Project, a Clarksville-based citizens group. "Fayette County is doing a great job of addressing the crisis of vanishing pioneer cemeteries." The Martin Cemetery restoration on County Road 400 West is his latest triumph. The 53 stones, including Catharine Kellum's, have been restored, cleaned and placed upright once again and you can read the haunting inscriptions.
Who knows, for example, why someone carved this inscription on Elizabeth Kinder's gravestone in 1853:
"I hope for a pardon through my son for all the crimes which I have done. O' may the grace which pardons me, construct me to forgive like thee."
Was she a criminal?
"You wonder," said Walters, walking among the white stones. "Look at this one."
The stone simply says "Our Charley." Who was Charley? Who knows? But he was important to someone because he was "Our Charley."
After years cutting grass, working construction, living in a teepee and suffering through the ill-fated blast furnace job, John Walters has found something that transcends a paycheck.
It's Our Charley and Catharine Kellum and all the rest of the long-forgotten souls.
"I finally found my calling," he said, standing beside Catharine Kellum's stark white marble gravestone.
The Kellum project
His calling led to the rightful resurrection of Catharine Kellum's simple gravestone, the last remaining trace of her life, the 27 pieces of marble which he lifted from the earth, reassembled and placed atop her grave. It's back on Section 20 of Ezra Martin's old farm, the very spot where her husband Jacob placed it 184 years ago.
"Saving history, that's what we do," he said. "It's the moral requirement of every living soul to care for the gravestones of the dead."
Bill Shaw writes about people and places along Indiana's back roads and Main streets.
Cemetery Restored :
BY DARRELL SMITH/Staff Writer
Just over two years ago, the first stone in Bever Cemetery in Orange Township was discovered. Since that time, the Fayette County Cemetery Department directors have been restoring the cemetery and now it is nearly complete.
With that work behind him, current Cemetery Director Randy Morehead can turn his attention to the Nicholas Reagan Family Cemetery in the middle of a cornfield on County Road 200-S. He recently located the long-lost tombstone for Nicholas Reagan and his wife. By the end of December 2002, 11 stones in the Bever Cemetery had been discovered.
Last spring, Morehead, with the help of former Cemetery Director John Walters and others, began setting the stones that had been unearthed
After another year of probing, Morehead said the last of the stones has probably been found. There may be more stones but they are likely buried in the lane that goes to a cornfield that runs next to the cemetery. When some stones were discovered in the lane, landowner William Bever built another lane to the cornfield and during the winter a gate was placed across the lane to prevent unwelcome quad runners from damaging the stones, he said. A new iron fence, designed and built by Morehead, now welcomes visitors to the cemetery.
The only tasks remaining are setting of two stones. One belongs, Lavina Beaver, the second wife of David Beaver, who died in 1863. The stone, which has one piece still missing, will be set next to Elizabeth Beaver, her sister and first wife of David Beaver. No one is sure but William Bever theorizes that sometime in the late 1800s, someone in the family dropped the "a" for today's spelling.
The other stone was the first one discovered in the plot, he said. It is that of the infant son of Timothy and Sarah Murphy who died Sept. 23, 1821, but as of yet no record has been found to tie him to either the Bever family or Stephen family.
Thomas G. and Hannah Stephen were the parents of Elizabeth and Lavina Beaver. Hannah Stephen, who died in 1864, is buried in the cemetery.
"(We) never found Thomas Stephen, maybe he went off to war (Civil War)," Morehead said.
Morehead said the graves of David Beaver and his third wife, Martha Beaver, cousin of the first two wives, were recently discovered in the Orange North Cemetery. David's father, John Beaver, was recently discovered in a cemetery on the Rush County side of County Road 850-West south of Orange, He said his brother, former Cemetery Director Daryll Morehead, and Walters knew Nicholas Reagan's grave was in a raised area of a field at the jog where County Road 200-Sout becomes County Road 215-South but could not find the stone.
"I don't know why he was buried here because his property was down in Alpine," he said. "At that time, there was suppose to be an Indian village on that hill (pointing south of the cemetery). There are a lot of arrowheads laying around." Nicholas was born Oct. 24, 1782, and died, according to the stone, Aug. 30, 1837. Morehead said Paulette Hayes, Fayette County historian and librarian at the Fayette County Public Library, told him the census indicates that Reagan died in 1836 but in those days it may have taken a year to set the stone . The year the stone was set was engraved on the stone.
"They were ready to bulldoze the site because no one had found anything but John (Walters) found out and went to the commissioners and had it stopped," he said. "Now it can't be done." The Reagan Cemetery likely just contains the graves of Reagan and his wife, whose name is not known, he said. There are several large, cut limestone blocks that presumably made a wall that surrounded the graves. A large tree stump remains in the middle of the area inside those blocks. Morehead said he has fixed 18 of the 47 tombstones damaged by vandals in November 2004 in the Mt. Zion Cemetery west of Everton. That has been time-consuming and expensive, he added.
DARRELL SMITH / News-Examiner
One of the last two stones to be reset in Bever Cemetery in Orange Township, that of Lavina Beaver who died in 1863, is still missing one piece.
The intricate engraving in Nicholas Reagan's recently discovered tombstone in the Nicholas Reagan Family Cemetery is noted by Fayette County Cemetery Director Randy Morehead.