The Dedicated Keepers of Wheeling’s Orphaned Cemeteries

Are you interested in helping preserve Wheeling’s history? Believe it or not, cemetery restoration is a great way to do this, as well as a good segue into other types of historic preservation. Although cemeteries are perhaps most commonly thought of as a place to go to remember loved ones, they are also a place to learn about the past through the people buried there, as well as a place to reflect near beautiful landscaping and interesting architecture.

A few weeks ago we sat down with Sharon David, an Preserve WV AmeriCorps member with Wheeling’s Orphaned Cemetery Group. A group formed by Friends of Wheeling, the Orphaned Cemetery Group is one of many volunteer groups throughout West Virginia and the country created to take care of cemeteries that are no longer cared for by a cemetery board or association, as well as those on private property. Cemeteries cared for by the Orphaned Cemetery Group include both community and family cemeteries that have fallen into neglect or that have been vandalized. Sharon says that the goal of the group is “to restore as many of the older and historic cemeteries in and around Ohio County as possible, not just Wheeling” and says that these cemeteries  “tell a lot of great stories of Wheeling and Ohio County in terms of the people who are buried there.” With four rather large cemeteries and around thirty-five smaller ones in Ohio County, there’s a lot to learn.

Recent Projects 

One of the most recent projects the Orphaned Cemetery Group has worked on is the Stone Church Cemetery located in Elm Grove, a project in which Sharon organized with Peggy Neibergall and others to create a workshops. She said that the light came on in September and the workshops took place in October. In between workshops, group members research who’s buried there and where they are, with the goal of gathering as much data as possible and publishing it on Find a Grave, a website that publishes millions of cemetery records and is known as having one of the largest online collections of gravesites in the world.

Musket Salute at Stone Church Cemetery.

The Fort Henry Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution has purchased a marker for the gate of the cemetery that can be scanned, taking visitors to a website that would direct them to graves, as well as bios and history relating to the Revolutionary War veterans interred at Stone Church. Sharon hopes something similar can be done for the Civil War veterans interred there. With one hundred and fifty Civil War veterans known thus far, the group is working on acquiring markers, as well as finding more graves. There has also been recent work on Mount Wood Cemetery, and hope of working on the Curtis Family Cemetery in West Liberty. This family had sons on both sides of the war, with one being a Medal of Honor winner. The brothers are interred there, along with a number of other veterans.

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How to Get Involved

If you want to help preserve Wheeling’s neglected cemeteries, there are a variety of ways to volunteer with the Orphaned Cemetery Group. With projects including cleanup, restoration, and recording inscriptions, there’s something for everyone! Many of these skills can also be translated into further historic preservation work. Cleaning can mean cleaning up the area, such as removing overgrowth around the cemetery and maintaining it, as well as putting markers back into place. Local Boy Scouts from Troop 6 have helped with cleanup, as well as attended workshops to learn how to lift markers knocked over by vandalism or weather. Heavier stones have been lifted with the help of stronger people, like the Scouts, although the heaviest are put back into place using heavy lifting equipment. Historians and groups such as the Sons of the American Revolution, who are interested in the Revolutionary War, have been working on locating and maintaining graves for the upcoming 250th anniversary, as well as installing new markers.

The first part of restoration, and perhaps the easiest way to help out, is cleaning the tombstones with biodegradable cleaner in order to take off biogenic growth and pollution. Although a simpler task, this is vital in making tombstones easier to identify and can help volunteers learn the layout of the cemetery. Once tombstones are legible, recording is the next task. A task that may be of great interest to historians, recording inscriptions is important due to the way inscriptions and information on the stones may contribute to the historical record. For further recording, tombstones also are photographed.

  • Volunteers cleaning at Stone Church Cemetery.

If the tombstones require more than cleaning, the part of restoration of tombstones becomes more specialized. This is due to the variety of materials they may be made out of and their style. Tombstones may be made out of tin, marble, limestone, or granite. They also could be simple, such as a plain marker, or elaborate, such as having an obelisk. Early graves may be identified with a wooden marker, or even without a marker. Graves such as these are still sometimes able to be found based on stories. Although the Orphaned Cemetery Group hasn’t yet used this, Sharon said, there might also be a good chance in finding these using ground penetrating radar. 

The amount of time required to work on a cemetery depends on the size and condition, but they typically are a long term project. On average, it takes two-to-three hours to clean a gravestone and it can take up to a day to clear an area of a cemetery. The time for restoration depends on the type of material as well as possible time to request markers from various places. Veterans, for example, might be eligible for markers from the Department of Defense. Despite an overall project completion time, this is a project that welcomes work as volunteers are available, without necessitating long term commitment. Volunteers also may choose their project based on interest. It also is volunteer work that will always be there since as long as the cemetery stands it will require maintenance.

If you are interested in getting involved with the Wheeling Orphaned Cemetery Group, they host meetings every other month at the Wheeling Artisan Center (1400 Main Street), with the next one slated for June 1 at 10 a.m. The next workshop is scheduled for Sunday, May 21 at Stone Church Cemetery. Keep up with everything the Friends of Wheeling are up to by following them on Facebook

Summer is a soon-to-be graduate of Bethany College from Parma, Ohio. At Bethany she is receiving bachelor’s degrees in history and religious studies, and is also a member of the cross country and track teams. In the near future she will be pursuing a master of arts in history with a public history concentration at IUPUI in Indianapolis, IN.