Rockton Township Historical Society takes a journey back to cemetery restorations

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Rockton Township Cemetery contains the grave of Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth, killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Photo: Chris Walsh

Former Rockton Township Cemetery sexton Jerri Noller was instrumental in putting loving care into Rockton cemeteries. Most notably, she spent valuable time overseeing former cemetery restoration projects.

At an April 25 meeting sponsored by the Rockton Township Historical Society, Noller played a video from Dekalb Township Cemetery, where a similar seven year project was completed. In the video, Helen Wildermuth from Stonehuggers Restoration Company (SHRC) of Nashville, Indiana, spoke of the importance of planting roots for those who have family in the cemetery. “It gives people an attachment and belief in their community,” Wildermuth said.

Wildermuth said that the stones in the worst condition are done first, and she explained the restoration process. Many communities often ask, “Why didn't we do this sooner?” and "This should be done because it is the right thing to do,” Wildermuth said, “We need to remind them of who is funding the project. A sign was put up reading, 'Please drive slowly, please take a look.'”



In her introduction, Noller shared that she has been associated with the Rockton Township Cemetery in several capacities over a 23 year period from 1996 to 2019. She served as Rockton Township cemetery sexton for 15 years, leaving a reputation of Rockton cemeteries being some of the most beautiful around.

Noller gave a history of the cemeteries. "The Rockton Township Cemetery was formed in 1857 on an almost eight acre piece of land purchased at a cost of $870 from William Talcott for the purpose of being a burial ground."

Later, on June 6, 1865, Phillips Cemetery on Bates Road in rural Rockton was created on land purchased by Benjamin Phillips.

Noller displayed a map showing where restoration work has been done.

After being given the green light by then-Supervisor Tom Jencius, Noller began taking steps to start the restoration in both cemeteries. “As Tom was a Township trustee for several years before becoming supervisor, he knew I had researched a restoration company that would carefully preserve the history of those before us,” Noller said. From this starting point, she confirmed a reservation with Wildermuth and Stonehuggers Restoration for fall 2010 with a budget of $10,000 to start.

“I wanted people to see the whiteness of the stones and we also pulled out all of the flags, as we were going to start over,” Noller said.

Noller's research to find the best restoration company had continued for several years. She visited quite a few cemetery sites to view work that had been done by various companies. Noller also attended many workshops and seminars where she could come in direct contact with restoration companies. “I always came back to Stonehuggers, as their method of preservation was the friendliest,” Noller said.

No abrasive cleaners or harsh methods of cleaning are used by Stonehuggers. “This is an important aspect to this process, as most of the older stones are made of Italian marble or sandstone,” Noller said.

“The buildup of algae, dirt, and air pollution on the stones has taken its toll on many of the stones, making them nearly illegible.”

Noller outlined the cleaning process used by Stonehuggers. “They use a gentle pulsating water process which is able to bring back the brilliant white color of the stone to its nearly original state without damaging the engraving and dates on each stone. “

“In the years before me, all of the stones were installed by the cemetery sexton to provide additional income over and above the sexton salary. Monument companies would drop off a stone at a person's gravesite over the winter; spring would come along and if the sexton got completely busy, or completely forgot that a stone had been delivered, that stone along with many others in the cemetery were never set properly on a pad. These stones were addressed as part of this project.”

A majority of these unset stones had become buried over the years in grass clippings and dirt resulting in only the mere top of the stone showing at ground level. These were dug out, cleaned and properly set on a pad. At the beginning of the project the main concern was to address the broken and buried stones that were in abundance throughout the cemetery. “It was a beautiful site when the first phase was completed, to see all of the bright, white clean standing tall stones.

“I was very proud to be a part of this project and appreciated the trust in my judgment on choosing Stonehuggers Restoration Company to do the work,” Noller said.

Noller displayed different news articles that were written about the restoration project. “Publicity was a huge part of this project. I felt that it was important that Township residents knew what was happening with each visit with the partnership with Stonehuggers to the cemetery,” Noller said. Action photos showed Wildermuth working in the cemetery. Another picture featured a headstone laying in the dirt that was broken and put back together.

Find a Grave, Newspapers.com, and Free Age Calculator are a few of the websites Noller suggested where the public can obtain cemetery information.

In 2013, local Boy Scout Aaron Jolly began his Eagle Scout project by working with his fellow Scouts to research the necessary information for securing from the federal government a special Civil War monument for soldiers who had never had a proper grave marker. Through hours of research, they helped provide printed documentation to process the marker applications. Due to some records being incomplete, some were rejected for various reasons, mostly for a lack of enough historic military service documentation.

Rockton Township finally received eleven markers and installation was completed in 2015. A memorial service commemorated the project, with Boy Scout Troop 619, members of the Walter Graham American Legion Post 332 Color Guard, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and community members present. “It was a wonderful ceremony honoring all veterans lost in all wars, especially honoring the newly installed markers covering those who weren't properly marked,” Noller said.

Noller showed special places in the cemetery, including Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth's monument, and a small marker with a fence around it: the grave of a young boy named Charles Wright. The son of James and Elizabeth Wright, he was buried in the cemetery before the property was transferred to Rockton Township. The fence was placed around the marker to prevent animals from digging up the grave at that time, before it was a cemetery. The rumor on the internet was that this was the grave of a witch's baby. Noller guaranteed to everyone present that Mrs. Wright wasn't a witch.

Over the seven years of the project, more than 400 stones were restored and reset. All of the granite markers and monuments in all sections of the cemetery and in Phillips Cemetery were power washed and cleaned. An algaecide treatment was used on all restored stones in 2013 and 2016. Sadly, the same maintenance of the refurbished stones was not continued after Noller's dismissal as sexton. “Hopefully sometime in the future it will not be too late to bring the stones back to their restoration state; many are showing signs of algae growth,” Noller said.

Seven families paid $4,935 for restorations to markers for their ancestors. A total of $85,530 was spent on restoration and $17,700 was spent on power washing of all remaining granite stones in both cemeteries.

“The cleaning of all stones was profoundly appreciated by local residents and visitors to the cemetery. Many notes of thanks were received,” Noller said. “You can be very proud of the fact that your Township spent those funds.”

Gene and Judy Truman donated $2,250: the cost of installation of Civil War markers for the Eagle Scout project. “Lastly I would like to publicly acknowledge and thank Roger and Judy Bates for their donation of ornamental fencing at Phillips Cemetery in 2008.”

“The restoration project at the cemetery was a wonderful addition to the preservation of the history of Rockton. As you can see, there is still more restoration to do,” Noller concluded.

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