Gone but not forgotten: Family historian restores portion of cemetery

The headstone of Rudolph Beshears was toppled over into four pieces before Linda Ball began tending to the cemetery just beyond her yard. Everett Balman came with a skid steer and got all four pieces stacked together again. (Photo by Liz Johnson/Richmond News)

The headstone of Rudolph Beshears was toppled over into four pieces before Linda Ball began tending to the cemetery just beyond her yard. Everett Balman came with a skid steer and got all four pieces stacked together again. (Photo by Liz Johnson/Richmond News)

By Liz Johnson/Staff Writer

Anyone who has dabbled in family history understands the fascination historians have with cemeteries.  A cemetery is where genealogists find the answers to many questions. It’s where the proverbial brick wall of research tumbles to the ground when a long sought-after grave is discovered.

Yes, it’s where the dead are buried and when centuries pass, those buried within the boundaries tend to be forgotten. However, Richmond resident and family historian Linda Ball is determined not to let that happen to a certain section of Sunny Slope Cemetery.

Ball’s kitchen window looks out over the very back section of Sunny Slope. After years of washing dishes and seeing the overgrown section, weeds, flowers and bushes, including poison ivy, overtake the burial plots, Ball decided to do something about it.

“I was standing at my kitchen window and saw a car pull right up to the overgrown part of the cemetery,” said Ball. “Weeds and grass were at least two feet high.

“A fellow got out of the car, walked up to the edge of the section, put his hands on his hips and stared at the overgrown mess for a minute.

“I thought, how sad. He came out here to see a person’s grave and couldn’t get near it.”

The man left and an idea formed in Ball’s mind to see what she could do to clean out this neglected section of the cemetery. She said she saw the men who mowed bring the machines right up to within inches of the overgrown part and cut around the edge, but that is as far as they ever got. The section was essentially neglected.

Included in the weeds and poison ivy was a tree that had fallen over, literally capturing the weeds and headstones beneath its massive trunk.

“Last spring (of 2015) I was out in the cemetery walking and I thought, ‘what if I picked up a few limbs, leaves and things,’” said Ball. “Maybe the mowers could get back between the graves.”

Ball used a leaf rake and started in on her project, never dreaming it would take as much work as it did or how vested she would become in the people whose bodies rested beneath the tipped over, broken and buried headstones.

The tree, which had a very wide trunk, had been resting on its side for at least four years and was completely rotted. It was covered by a lot of poison ivy and surrounded by brush.

Meanwhile, Ball cleaned up what she could. She knew she couldn’t take care of the fallen tree and neither could her husband, Dennis. However, one day, she discovered Mike Harrison and Garry Bush had come in and gotten rid of the old rotted tree.

“That opened up the area, made it more accessible,” said Ball, “so I could really get in there and work. I kept moving limbs and digging out buried headstones.”

The job required heavy-duty gloves, boots and long sleeves, due to the excessive growth of poison ivy. And it was hard work.

As Ball continued, she began finding a lot of headstones that had sunk into the ground over the past 100-plus years with just the tips sticking out of the ground. Many were tipped completely over, had fallen off their base and broken.

“I found a stone laid over on its side,” said Ball. “It was inscribed ‘Georgia Fowler, July 16, 1874, May 28, 1924.’ It was broken over at the base.

“I thought it would be cool to get it back up.”

Ball was unable to get that stone back up but, undeterred, she kept on cleaning.

Some stones had trees growing up so close to the headstones that the headstones were tilted over. “It looked like a tree was planted in their (deceased’s) memory,” said Ball, “and the tree grew so tall its roots pushed the headstone over.”

As Ball continued cleaning, clearing and digging out the buried and broken stones, she became invested in those whose stones bore little information, providing just enough history to tickle her interest with a name, date of birth and date of death and not much else.

After cutting the weeds around two particular headstones, Ball got to thinking about how the people died. One stone read: “Olin Lyles Junior, December 14, 1917, February 5, 1919.” The other read, “Mother, Willo May Lyles, October 22, 1893, February 15, 1919.”

“How sad,” said Ball, “mother and son died so close to each other.” Ball said she doesn’t know what the two died from, but remarked it touched her that someone lost a wife and son within 10 days of each other.

One stone was lying flat and broken into several pieces. Ball rearranged the pieces around the larger part of the stone, so it was back together as best as she could get it.

“One grave, Jess Jenkins (Dec. 25, 1869 to Feb. 20, 1919) had just a tiny corner of the stone sticking up out of the dirt,” said Ball. “I stubbed my toe on it.”

Ball had to do a lot of digging to get the stone up and out. The base was broken, so she put the top on bricks and arranged dirt around it in order to keep the headstone upright.

The headstone of Norris Riggs (1903-1934) was completely surrounded and buried by a huge clump of yucca, which Ball cut back in order to reveal the stone.

The headstone of Joseph Mansur, which was curved at the top with an ornate carving of a bird and leaves with “Father” on it, was broken in half. Ball used epoxy to put it back together and set up boards to keep it upright while the glue dried.

The biggest headstone project was that of Rudolph Beshears (1890 to 1917). It was in four pieces, with two large bases, one smaller base and a tall monument. The bottom base had settled and the rest toppled.

“I knew it was too heavy for me to handle,” said Ball, who mentioned the problem to Everett Balman, also a family historian. “He offered to help by using a skid steer.”

Balman and his son-in-law, Greg Garland, came out with the skid steer, “and in no time had put the headstone back up.”

Ball’s husband, Dennis, has provided some much-needed muscle to help with some of the heavy work. One headstone required a car jack to prop it back up.

“He helped me mix concrete to repair broken bases,” said Ball.

Some trees needed to be trimmed, which Dennis handled so the mowers could get under them.

The section of the cemetery previously overgrown is now full of stones that have been repaired and are now standing upright. Ball said she still has more work to do and some of the engravings on the stones are so worn they can’t be read. Occasionally, Ball goes out to the cemetery with chalk to rub on the stones and try to read the names and dates on them.

A few of the gravesites are marked by a narrow strip of concrete that completely borders the plot. Some contain what appears to be one, two or three graves. The engraving is on one end, generally where a marker would normally be placed. The engravings on these are very difficult to read.

Ball said she is very happy to see that the mowers are mowing that section of the cemetery once again.

Asked why she cares so much about the condition of the section of headstones in the cemetery, Ball replied, “I appreciate the fact that someone put a stone up. These are someone’s loved ones.”

They are gone, but no longer

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