I am often asked what we have used to clean the very old tombstones in our Pioneer Graveyard.
When I first joined the committee, I started researching what should be done. It was extremely frustrating for I could readily discover what you should never do and basically could not find out anything you should do.
The purists say leave it alone, the patina of age enhances them. Others say do whatever you have to get the moss and stains, etc. off so you can read the stone and save the information. In between the extremes all methods seemed to be condemned by some groups and pushed by others.
So, the most innocuous cleaner we could use was water which does not damage the stone, but you can’t just spray them with water – you require something else. That would be a scrub brush and muscle. So I purchased various types and styles of scrub brushes and tested them on the stones, as most old markers are made of soft stones like marble and sandstone, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t scar the stone.
A wooden spatula was great to scrape off heavy mossy vegetation. We used stiff normal scrub brushes for larger areas and brass brushes, like an oversized toothbrush, for fancy areas. We got them from the hardware and they did not scratch the stone at all. However, if you research you will find those who would condemn this. Others condemn vinegar, baking soda and all household cleaners.
I believe the best advice I was given, was to be as gentle as possible, but to get them clean enough to get all the information off the stones. I was also advised by two monument companies that in 20 years most of the old pioneer stones will no longer be legible, because of the acid rain and erratic weather we now have.
Scrubbing season is now upon us. I believe we are about half done the 110 tombstones we have, and would like to complete the balance this coming summer.
We would like your assistance, as we have a handful of very dedicated scrubbers but could use several more handfuls, to make sure the job gets done. We really would like your help, or even your assistance in passing the word along to other people you know who might be willing to help. Perhaps a scouting group, or ball team, golf group, church group or just a group of friends who would like to volunteer and lend a hand in preserving Tillsonburg’s past.
It is quite fascinating to take an unreadable stone and watch the name suddenly appear. One scrubber we had actually unearthed the tombstone, then did a precursory cleaning of it. She discovered it marked the death of a little girl, and to make it even more poignant, she died at the same age that the scrubber’s niece was. It hit home. It was unusual experience and one that made the living niece, even more precious.
There are so many stories in that graveyard. We now know the stories behind most of the tombstones and are now gathering the stories about the people whose tombstones have been destroyed over the decades. We want all these names we can find to be preserved on the large welcoming, index stone at the entrance to the graveyard. Visitors looking for someone with a tombstone will be directed to the appropriate section and individual stone. Those without a tombstone will have the word ‘missing’ beside them.
But the project now is cleaning and reading the stone, photographing details for the future, and making them look good, even if for only a little while.
If you can come scrub with us, you should know what you might like to bring along with you. Mornings can be cool and damp, so you might want to dress in layers because after an hour or so it can get a lot warmer. That brings to mind a hat, sunscreen and perhaps a water bottle.
Some scrubbers sit on the ground or kneel. I can’t do that so I bring a small stool to sit on. Some of our stones are lying down and others standing. This summer we have some tall monuments to do so I shall try to get a ladder or two out there. Some can scrub the base and those not nervous can scrub up on the ladders.
If you have a pail and any scrub brushes, bring them along and I will try to provide enough of the more unusual things we use. Flora Thompson, also on the Pioneer Cemetery Committee, just happens to live next door and is generous with her garden hose for our water.
A special scrub is scheduled for Saturday morning at 9 a.m. on June 21st. I would love to have more in June, but with all the events scheduled in town with Relay for Life, Turtlefest, the Harvard Anniversary, etc...
We are only doing mornings as most events are still going on in the afternoons. I know I want to get out to the Harvard celebration that day too! If you are digger, please come around, there is always a little bit of digging we need to do.
Every Saturday morning, 9 a.m., in July and August cleaning has been scheduled, so any time you can give will be appreciated. I would like to know if you might attend those scrubs, so I can make sure I have enough supplies on hand. Please call me at 519-842-9416.