A project sponsored by the Lincoln County Historical Association and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Lincolnton commenced this month with the goal of cleaning, resetting and repairing a number of the more than 300 headstones located inside the church graveyard.
Crews with the LCHA and church preservation board, along with LCHA interns and other volunteers from across the Carolinas, flocked to the North Cedar Street property on Saturday for a roughly six-hour work session.
Because some of the headstones have endured much deterioration and damage over the decades — and quite possibly the last two centuries — the names, dates and special sayings etched into the marble and granite markers no longer prove distinguishable — with some completely unidentifiable, according to LCHA’s executive director, Jason Harpe.
For county historical expert and LCHA Board President Bill Beam, who also serves on St. Luke’s eight- to 10-member preservation committee, each stone represents an individual’s life story, whether the person died in infancy or adulthood or experienced death due to sickness, war or old age.
“A lot of times,” Beam said, “the only record you have of a person’s life is the stone. We owe it to our ancestors to preserve that stone.”
Harpe agreed with his fellow history enthusiast, comparing the stones to museum artifacts that must be preserved and celebrated.
“People who are buried here did a lot of great things for the county,” he said.
Some of the prominent historical figures laid to rest at St. Luke’s include Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, the Confederate Army’s youngest major general, Lorenzo Ferrer, a soldier in Napoleon’s army, and former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice William Alexander Hoke.
Over the years, the LCHA has carried out for the community a number of historical tours at the church and provided St. Luke’s officials with preservation guidance for their property and facilities. It seemed only fitting then for the two parties to again unite to restore the graveyard’s headstones.
A majority of the activities carried out by the roughly 15 workers and volunteers Saturday included gravestone cleaning and resetting as well as any other necessary repair work, Harpe said.
The process for properly cleaning each stone took 10 to 15 minutes and required a special chemical solution called “D/2 biological solution,” which not only removed biological growth and stains but will also prevent any regrowth, unlike other cleaners and pressure washer tools, which only temporarily wipe away dirt, pollution and parasites, historical officials said.
LCHA workers used the same solution in March to clean environmental staining and biogrowth off the marble World War II monuments located in front of the Lincoln County courthouse. The solution is also utilized for cleaning the White House and various veterans’ monuments across the country, Harpe said.
The process demanded crews first spray the stone with water then use soft-bristled brushes to apply the chemical solution, continuously scrubbing until most of the growth disappeared.
During the scrubbing initiative, someone continued to wet the rock with water to keep it moist.
In addition to cleaning a segment of the graveyard’s stones, the group repaired damaged gravestones along with unstable ones that historical officials viewed as potential safety hazards.
Even if a gravestone appeared crooked from improper repair methods over the years, but stood stable, the crew left it alone.
“We reset gravestones that leaned precariously into the area where maintenance crews mow or…that had been detached from their respective bases,” Harpe said.
Workers first removed the grave marker’s top portion, the “tablet,” and poured lime mortar — a substance as soft as the gravestones — into the socket of the base stone.
Crews then hooked the tablet back into the base, securing it for many more years to come.
One material conservationists particularly reject for resetting stones is concrete.
“We especially don’t use concrete because it is harder than the gravestone,” Harpe said.
By resetting and straightening the grave markers, workers not only eliminated unnecessary stress on the objects, keeping future breaks at bay, but also cut down on the potential for future damage from yard work supplies, according to historical officials.
Two of the individuals at the St. Luke’s work session traveled from Beaufort, S.C., just to learn the particular cleaning method for future repair on their own church’s gravestones.
“We’ve got a church yard full of stones worse than these,” Arthur Marscher said, pointing to the Lincolnton property.
He brought his nephew Rick to the site, who said they both enjoyed witnessing the stone repair for the first time.
Both attend St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Beaufort, which celebrated its 300th anniversary this year, they said, and maintains a block each of old church members’ headstones and ones belonging to members more recently deceased.
As gravestones once stained with yellow, green, brown and black growth turned once again into shining white rocks, close in color to the original, work crews stood amazed at the simple yet significant contribution they made to preserving local history.
Names, dates and funerary markings in the shapes of lambs, crosses and angels were suddenly visible again, along with lettering from local marble yards that once dotted the county.
Harpe said marble yard officials would order the stones and inscribe them with their company’s unique signature after receiving the pieces.
“It’s very fulfilling to see a stone in disrepair and bring it back as close as possible (to how it once looked),” Beam said.
He felt the work would preserve the stones for at least another century, allowing future generations to continue learning about the person each one represents.
While LCHA crews have yet to secure a date for a second work session at St. Luke’s, Harpe said additional cleaning and resetting will be necessary.