Volunteers take swipe at restoring cemetery

June 23, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

SHARPSBURG - Ask John Nelson why he and other Sharpsburg Historical Society members are voluntarily bending their backs restoring the old German Reformed Church cemetery on Mechanic Street and the answer is short and simple - it needs it.

"We are doing it out of respect," Nelson said as he and three other devotees labored in the muggy heat Sunday afternoon. "I just don't think cemeteries should be in deplorable condition."

President of the society, Nelson said the Reformed cemetery dates back to 1775. It is the first of four old cemeteries within the town limits and two outside town that the historical society has identified.


The other three old grave sites in town include the Methodist and Lutheran cemeteries and another known as Tolson's Chapel.

"I'd had some experience in cemetery restoration so we decided to do this," Nelson said. In 1981-82, he led the effort to restore the Big Spring Cemetery in Fulton County, Pa.

That cemetery, which dated back to 1755, was lost in brush, chest-high grass and downed tree branches, Nelson said. Once that was remedied, the restorers encountered hundreds of broken tombstones that needed to be repaired and reinstalled in their proper locations.

"It took a year, but we were able to do it," Nelson said. "It looks great today."

When the Sharpsburg group first toured the Reformed cemetery site, it found a lot of missing and overturned stones, Nelson said. In the middle of the cemetery was a pile of about 60 stones that had accumulated over the years.

"There are some wonderful old German stones in here," Nelson said, noting that the Reformed church members have been very cooperative with the restoration efforts.

Once cleaned with soap and water, most stones can easily be read and family names discerned.

Big help in the restoration has been provided by the writings of Webster Piper, who in the 1930s documented many cemeteries in the area, Nelson said. "The information about this cemetery is hard to understand but we're working on it."

Often grave sites are found when a shovel hits something hard and part of a stone is found.

"Once the restoration is completed, we'd like to put a picket fence around part of the cemetery," said member Paul Breitenbach, who was at the site Sunday with his wife, Joanne Breitenbach, and fellow member Carla Hirrlinger.

The Sharpsburg Historical Society is seeking donations for the fence and the return of any headstones that might have been removed over the years.

For more information on the restoration, call Nelson at 301-739-2703.

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