By Patrick Corcoran, Preserve WV AmeriCorps Member Eastern Regional Coal Archives/National Coal Heritage Area
West Virginia continues to gain value, due to successful historic resource improvement projects, just like the one recently undertaken at Old Stone Church Cemetery in Lewisburg, WV. Preserve WV AmeriCorps members partnered with Friends of the Old Stone Cemetery for a day of historic burial preservation education, as well as, hands-on restoration experience.
On Monday, the 26th of June 2017, these ancestrally-minded AmeriCorps members, who had been dying to get their hands dirty in this historically significant graveyard, were given professional guidance and tools of the trade. Wooden and plastic scraping implements of various shapes and sizes, toothbrushes, cue tips, sponges, gloves, notepads, kneepads, rags and a full spray bottle were all neatly packed into a work bucket, one for each volunteer. A cemetery restoration handout of best practices and richly illustrated with site-specific pictorial exemplars, was also provided. The Friends of the Old Stone Cemetery who led the operations of the day, were Morgan and Kate Bunn, a mother and daughter dynamic duo. Beth Carroll, a ‘Friend’ of the cemetery since 2013, showed how to use various tools, giving an early morning technical demonstration before volunteers and Preserve WV members dug in to the task at hand.
The exuberant body of community preservationists was dissected into areas of interest…some stabilized and others cleaned stones, while a third group shallowly excavated an unmarked family plot. The crystal clear solution within the spray bottles turned out to be D2, a non-toxic biological cleaning agent developed by the US National Park Service, specifically formulated for historic stone preservation. The cemetery leaders were quick to give the volunteers words of wisdom that were both practical and profound…such as and above all, do no harm, treating tombstones as historical artifacts that can be irreparably damaged. Even the best intentions of preservation have shown, over time, to do more harm than good to grave markers. For example, the use of Portland cement throughout the 20th Century, at the time, appeared to have done the job right, yet has subsequently damaged tombstones, especially bases, beyond belief. Water and D-2 are the only cleaning liquids used by these experienced freelance sextons.
This hauntingly picturesque cemetery is located on the hallowed grounds of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church. According to its West Virginia Encyclopedia entry, the temple “is thought to be the oldest church building in continuous use west of the Alleghenies.” Built of luminescent local limestone the following graven inscription surmounts its entryway: “This building was erected in the year of 1796 at the expense of a few of the first inhabitants of this land to commemorate their affection and esteem for the holy gospel of Jesus Christ. Reader, if you are inclined to applaud their virtues Give God the Glory”. Indeed, this day of civic service, through deliberate action of honoring our heritage through preservation, most certainly applauds the virtues of the past.
Dedicated PreserveWV AmeriCorps members came from each section of West Virginia to take part in this taphophilic restoration project. Both Ohio and Jefferson counties respectively represented the northern and eastern panhandles, as well as Mercer County in the south, Lewis County in the center, and Cabell County to the west. In all, sixteen AmeriCorps members participated, joined by six community volunteers who harkened from Lewisburg, Fayetteville, Pipestem and Summersville. This was the fourth preservation-oriented service project exactingly executed by PreserveWV AmeriCorps member Mercy Klein; the other volunteer opportunities having emboldened the communities of Fairmont (Marion Co.), Crum (Wayne Co.) and Fayetteville (Fayette Co.). Successful partnerships, as exemplified here, build awareness and spark curiosity in the incredible past of West Virginia. This exhumation of public engagement provides a quantifiable framework for preservation, whilst exalting our cultural heritage in perpetuity.
Awareness, preservation and presentation of the tumultuous, fascinating and mysterious history of central Appalachia are key components to plot a more smooth and sustainable future for coming generations. Preserve WV, under the inspirational and visionary leadership of the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, is cultivating the state for a sustained and bountiful harvest of heritage tourism.
“Stranger pause as you pass by…” to read the epitaphs of those on the other side! Reading the tombstones is a job which has been made much easier by the diligent work of the Friends of Old Stone Cemetery. The cleansing of these stones not only makes them more legible, but also kills the biological creatures that take root on them, therefore preserving these artifacts for another generation. A record number of gravestones were cleaned during this one day period, due to the spirited invocation of Preserve WV and additional community volunteers.
Cautious and shallow excavation of this unmarked cemetery plot exposed Victorian-Era wrought iron fencing, as well as, a stone pillar base. All historical artifacts were removed for preservation and restoration purposes. The local lore of this family grave is that it was vandalized during the Civil War, while cemetery records indicate an early 19th Century Lewisburg potter and his two sons are laid to rest here.
These avocational cryptkeepers look more gleeful than ghoulish, despite an exhaustive day done of preservation service! The PreserveWV AmeriCorps crew surrounds Morgan Bunn of Friends of the Old Stone Cemetery, who holds the sign. Bunn collaborated with PAWV AmeriCorps member Mercy Klein (front right) in providing all the necessary tools, drinks, snacks and shade canopies to make this day flow seamlessly and prodigiously. As an added bonus, lunch was served on an antebellum estate, where the Mayor of Lewisburg personally thanked our group, and historical tours were given.
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