Cemeteries Across the State in Danger of Fading Away
SISTERSVILLE – Cemeteries across the region are in need of a caring hand.
Bill Deaton of Friendly took it upon himself to beautify the Wells Cemetery located behind Sistersville General Hospital.
The cemetery contains the grave of Charles Wells, the founder of Sistersville, and other early settlers. The historical cemetery was overrun with weeds and trees, so Deaton at the behest of the Wells Cemetery Fund made it a point to restore everything as close to original condition as possible. He said because of the severity of the overgrowth, the project took him more than 5 months this past season. The Wells Cemetery Fund purchased the plaque that notes the cemetery’s importance.
“A few years ago, I got to looking at that cemetery and thought we need to clean that up because that is where the descendants of our town are buried, so I got involved,” he said. “We need to do this or it’ll disappear and it almost did. Trees were on the ground. Tombstones were upset. All these things needed to be made right.”
Many of the head stones provide a very fascinating history such as names of some of the founders and their descendants. Some of the plots contain bodies that were born in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. There was one child named Twenty Wells as it was the twentieth child born in the family. Many of the stones were elaborately detailed and displayed the hard work put into creating these monuments. One grave in particular was designed to look like a log standing on top of a pile of rocks. The husband lay on one side, his wife on the other, and the names of several children engraved in each of the stones. The imagination and creativity that went into some of these pieces is almost unbelievable until you see it in person.
Deaton, 74, said he works when he can a few hours a day at the cemetery.
“It’s not easy work, but it has to be done if the cemetery is to survive another century,” he said.
A few years ago, David Van Covern, a descendent of the Wells family, organized efforts to solicit donations on behalf of the Wells Cemetery Fund to restore the grounds.
“This was formerly a very beautiful cemetery where the city’s founder is buried. It is a beautiful spot, so I had to get involved,” said Van Covern, who lives in Texas but whose family hails from Sistersville.
“I love Sistersville and these two cemeteries are very important – maybe even the crown jewels of our heritage,” said Van Covern, formerly of Sistersville who now lives in Texas.
Deaton had to trim out all of the thick weeds and saplings just to create space to work with. There were trees growing in, on, and around the old solid steel fencing that had to be cut down. He had to shave the trees down as much as possible with a chainsaw and then would drill out holes between fence posts in order to get a jig saw and wood chisel in there to finish the job.
Deaton also felt took it upon himself to straighten and clean every head stone in the old cemetery. He created a tripod of old pipes and ropes in order to move the massive stones so that he could fix and level the foundations. After all of the foundations had been leveled again, he used the same tripod to replace the heavy stones. He then decided to power wash all of the gravestones in order to bring out some of the old inscriptions. Deaton even went as far as to piece the broken head stones back together and put a frame around them to help hold the stones together.
Deaton also maintains Friendly’s cemetery.
“I’ve been maintaining Friendly’s cemetery for nearly 27 years,” he said. “The job, like the one at the Wells Cemetery, is important because if their not maintained and restored, then we lose something that we can not replace. And a place that means a lot to these families and our community.”
Deaton and Gary Weekley along with Bill Swisher serve together on Friendly’s Cemetery Committee.
“Together, we’ve done a lot to restore and maintain this cemetery,” Deaton said.
A bit further afield from the Wells Cemetery lies the Oakwood Cemetery which has fallen into disrepair.
Van Covern said he is interested in raising money for restoration efforts. Several hundred former members of Sistersville Presbyterian Church are buried at Oakwood, he said.
“It’s the original Sistersville Cemetery that was established a long, long time ago,” he said. “That cemetery is part of the city’s heritage, so we need to restore it. If one reads the names on the gravestones, they will find many from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. Many members of my family are buried in that cemetery. I care a lot about Sistersville.”
Van Covern is seeking anyone who is able to spearhead local efforts to restore the cemetery.
“What I would wish for is for a group to take over care of the cemetery to preserve it for future generations,” he said. “We need a local sponsor to make this happen.”
Cemeteries Near and Far
Sistersville’s cemetery woes are not unique to West Virginia. Marion County’s Woodlawn Cemetery is one of the state’s most distinguished historical cemeteries. The “Father of West Virginia”, Francis Pierpont, the governor of the restored state of Virginia, and his family are buried in the 42-acre cemetery in Fairmont. Among other notable state figures, Aretas B. Fleming, eighth governor of West Virginia, is also buried there. Several years ago, the cemetery fell into disrepair as law suits percolated up through the court system. In recent years, Fairmont resident Nancy Bickerstaff led the charge to the restore the cemetery to its former glory.
Bickerstaff and her son-in-law, David Smith, formed a cemetery board which has raised more than $45,000 in donations from folks across the country. The Woodlawn Abby has been restored and some of the grounds have been landscaped in recent months.
“We’ve formed a new board and we’re hoping to do what’s right to honor and respect the memory of thousands of people who are buried there,” she said. “It’s not easy, but it needs to be done. Cemeteries like this are part of our heritage.”
Morgantown had its own share of cemetery problems until Charlie Chico stepped up to restore and maintain Lawnwood Cemetery, adjoining the Oak Grove Cemetery at the end of South High Street. For the past several years, Chico has trimmed, mowed grass and helped to organize a board to oversee the cemetery’s operation.
Wheeling’s Mount Wood Cemetery was chartered in 1848 and managed by a cemetery commission, but a familiar pattern happened.
“Over the years, the trustees died off and the funding dried up, so the cemetery was turned over to the city,” Jeanne Finstein, president of Friends of Wheeling. “They have done an excellent job with cutting the grass and picking up the litter, but they have not addressed the problems of falling tombstones or vandalism.”
Three years ago, Friends of Wheeling sponsored an historic tour of the Mount Wood Cemetery so as to call attention to its condition. Around the same time, the Wheeling National Heritage Area under Bekah Karelis’ leadership sponsored a cemetery restoration workshop. A cemetery restoration specialist came to Wheeling and spent three days teaching a group of volunteers who to properly clean and reset monument without damaging them. Since then, one weekend a month during the spring, summer and fall, volunteers have worked to restore the cemetery.
Donations from the community have also funded the expense of bringing a professional monument company to the site to restore some of the larger monuments.
“Some of the monuments are much larger than manual labor can handle,” Finstein said.
Most recently, Wheeling Heritage funded the reconstruction of a ‘white bronze’ monument memorializing Captain John McLure, a riverboat captain during the Civil War. His monument had been damaged by a falling tree limb in 2010.
Finstein stressed the importance of cemeteries to the state’s history.
“Cemeteries are historical places and we should maintain them to honor those who helped build our state,” she said.