‘The history of the town’: Project working to conserve, clean headstones in historic Oak Hill Cemetery

photo by: Contributed

The headstone of Luzine Wildersen is pictured before (left) and after it was cleaned as part of a conservation project at Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.

Before lichens and other biological growth were cleaned from the headstone in Oak Hill Cemetery, neither the name of the person buried there nor the stone’s ornamentation was clearly visible. The surface of the stone was covered in black, green and yellow growth, and cemetery records listed the headstone as “unknown.”

Now, when visitors look upon the headstone, what they can clearly see is the name of Luzine Wildersen and an inscription indicating she died in 1871 at the age of 10 years, 9 months and 29 days. Atop the stone is a hand with a finger pointing upward to heaven. A collaborative project funded by a local grant, donations, and the City of Lawrence will conserve at least 53 headstones in poor condition in Oak Hill Cemetery, and dozens of volunteer hours have already helped clean more than 250 stones, including Luzine’s.

Denise Pettengill, a member of the Douglas County Historical Society Oak Hill Cemetery Program Committee, is among the volunteers who put in more than 150 collective hours assisting conservation specialist Pacific Coast Conservation during the first phase of the project this past fall. Pettengill said Luzine’s headstone is a dramatic example of what the project hopes to do — conserve the stones and the stories they represent.

“How can we even know their story if we can’t even read their name?” Pettengill said.

The first phase of the conservation project took place in the first few weeks of October, and after a break for the winter volunteers and specialists are preparing to resume their efforts in March. The project — which is still open to volunteers — is funded by $48,500 of Capital Improvement Plan funds from the City of Lawrence; an $11,000 grant from the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council Natural & Cultural Grant Program; and $5,000 in private donations raised by the committee. The committee, formerly the nonprofit community group Friends of Oak Hill Cemetery, became a standing committee under the umbrella of the Watkins Museum of History last year.

Douglas County Historical Society Oak Hill Cemetery Program Committee members Kerry Altenbernd, left, and Peter Carttar clean the headstones of Sadie and Lillie Herrington during the first phase of a project to conserve headstones in Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.

Natalie Vondrak, communications and outreach manager at Watkins, said that all the volunteer hours have meant that the project’s limited funding can be used to potentially conserve more than the 53 stones initially identified for conservation. Vondrak said headstones were selected for conservation based on their condition, with the goal being to uphold the integrity of the stone. She said a majority of the 53 stones so far identified belong to victims of Quantrill’s raid, meaning they are approaching 160 years old. She said the volunteer work cleaning the stones allowed the specialist to concentrate on the conservation process.

“It allows (the specialists) to access more stones and get the job done quicker,” she said. “So basically now that they’ve completed phase one they can continue until the funds run out. So their goal is just to try to conserve as many headstones as possible now.”

photo by: Contributed

The headstones of Sadie and Lillie Herrington are pictured before they were restored as part of a conservation project at Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.

photo by: Contributed

The headstones of Sadie and Lillie Herrington are pictured after they were restored as part of a conservation project at Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.

Another example of a headstone that will be conserved as part of the project is a small monument for the grave of Charlie Leis, which at some point was knocked over and broke in two. Its inscription can still be read, and states that Charlie lived from 1875 to 1877. The stone bears the message “Little Charlie is sleeping.” Pettengill said while there are plenty of notable people buried in Oak Hill — she noted that journalist William Allen White referred to the cemetery as the “Arlington of the West” for that reason — it was the state of Charlie’s headstone that inspired one of the founders of the Friends of Oak Hill group, Shannon Hodges.

“Little Charlie only lived two years; he didn’t live long enough to become notable, but he truly was the spark that inspired in many ways the foundation of Friends of Oak Hill and the continuing work that we’re doing now,” Pettengill said. “So, it’s the small stories. It’s not necessarily all the big stories.”

Pettengill, who was born and raised in Lawrence, also has great-great-grandparents and other relatives buried in the cemetery, including a great-great-uncle who was one of the unarmed recruits killed in Quantrill’s raid. She said while the project is personal for her, she is also motivated by her love of history and the value that conserving the cemetery represents for the community.

“It’s also the history of the town,” she said. “And we should have much more celebration and care of this gem, and we’re trying to advocate for that.”

Pettengill said the cleaning work, which requires specific tools and solvents so as not to damage the stones, will resume once the weather is warm enough to use the solvents. She said some of the 53 stones that Pacific Coast Conservation has identified are large stones that have toppled over and will require heavy machinery to reset.

Vondrak said that similar to another ongoing project to honor the hundreds of unmarked graves in the Potter’s Field at Oak Hill, the conservation project is about honoring and respecting those who have died. She said the opportunity to volunteer for the project, which she said got a lot of attention when announced in a social media post this past week, gives more people the chance to contribute.

“I think the work that this committee is doing is really inspiring,” Vondrak said, adding that the project allows people to learn more about the cemetery and also become stewards of the cemetery themselves.

She said that the cemetery — which was placed among rolling hills and oak and cedar trees — was designed to have a park-like quality. She noted a quote from the Topeka Republican Journal from 1871, which speaks to that goal, that she said Watkins’ curator uses in her Oak Hill Cemetery tour:

“Something – much indeed – can be told of the refinement and culture of a community from the respect paid to the resting places of its dead. Lawrence stands well judged by this test. It is seldom that a more naturally attractive spot is selected for a cemetery … Oak Hill is daily becoming what every cemetery should be.”

The conservation project and the hours put in by volunteers speak to the importance of the work, to that community test, and Vondrak said she thought Oak Hill was becoming the communal park-like setting it was designed to be. She said that weather permitting, committee members and volunteers are scheduled to resume cleaning headstones on March 19. The Pacific Coast Conservation team will also be back in the spring to pick up where it left off during phase one of the project.

Vondrak said the committee is planning to host a program for volunteers to teach the dos and don’ts of headstone cleaning; once the date is set, it will be announced on the committee’s website, watkinsmuseum.org/oak-hill-headstone-conservation-project/. Those interested in volunteering may also email Watkins at info@watkinsmuseum.org.

photo by: Contributed

The headstone of Henry Fritzel is pictured before it was cleaned as part of a conservation project at Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.

photo by: Contributed

The headstone of Henry Fritzel is pictured after it was cleaned as part of a conservation project at Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave.


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