New life for old gravestones

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Ian Gronau | December 4, 2013

BELOIT -- In 2011 Peggy Walrath, an enthusiastic amateur genealogist, wrote to a cemetery caretaker in Geneva, N.Y. to see if he could find the headstone of her mother's step-sister who died at the age of 2 1/2 in 1897.

Records showed she was buried there, but the caretaker couldn't find her. Walrath was disappointed, but the caretaker promised not to give up.

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Two years later, the caretaker contacted Walrath to tell her he finally had found the headstone of her ancestor, and not only that, he'd dug it up, cleaned it and set it back up in its original spot.

Around the country, many turn-of-the-century cemeteries are experiencing similar issues. Over time, markers and monuments have been knocked down and damaged from vandalism or old age. As the seasons pass, the elements begin to bury these memorials underground where they become lost to time.

The cemeteries here in Beloit are no exception.

Walrath, who lives next to Oakwood Cemetery, decided that one good turn deserved another and began a personal quest to uncover the ancestors of others, just as the New York caretaker had done for her.

"I started uncovering stones in the cemetery on July 23 when I took my dog for a walk and discovered that we were actually walking on buried stones," Walrath said. "I've uncovered 147 so far, many with just a spade and whisk broom. I've tried to keep track of them. If there is a name I can read, I feel like they are my people now and I'd love to see their stones restored," Walrath said.

Many people walking by wouldn't even notice the hundreds of fallen stones, including the headstone of Horace White, one of Beloit College's most famous alums who went on to cover Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War for the Chicago Tribune.

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