Cemetery conservation is alive and well in Wheeling, thanks to enthusiastic efforts of an energetic group of preservationists and history buffs.
Cleaning, restoring and resetting old gravestones and monuments in two hillside burial grounds served as the focal point for a cemetery conservation workshop led by Jonathan Appell, a gravestone conservator, in mid-June.
A total of 33 people participated in the three-day workshop, said Bekah Karelis, archivist for Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and member of the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists.
Volunteers clean and repair a tombstone in Wheeling’s Mount Wood Cemetery as part of a cemetery conservation workshop.
Participants practice the new skills they learned to reset a cemetery marker that had slipped off its base
"It was a great turnout," said Karelis, who coordinated the event.
"One lady drove from Indiana. A guy came from Pittsburgh and a woman came from Morgantown."
While the majority of the participants were area residents, some traveled long distances to attend after learning about the workshop from a website posting by Appell, who is well known in conservation circles.
"We covered so much in three days. It was an incredible workshop," Karelis commented.
Appell, who is an expert in the field, approaches the process from a grassroots perspective. "He teaches locals to feel confident in their skills. He demystifies it," she said of cemetery conservation.
The hands-on workshop was conducted at Mount Wood Cemetery, which overlooks North Wheeling, and at Mount Zion Cemetery, located off 29th Street Hill, just outside the city limits in Ohio County. The first two days were spent learning and working at Mount Wood; the final day was devoted to Mount Zion.
"We had the full support of both the city (for Mount Wood) and the county (for Mount Zion) in holding the workshop at both cemeteries," the organizer said.
Appell was "astounded by what he found" in the cemeteries, Karelis said. At Mount Wood, "he said he'd never seen a cemetery with as many large monuments that needed attention," she added.
During the workshop, the volunteers restored some markers at the two sites, and "cleaned a lot more than we restored," Karelis said. They learned the basics of cleaning, such as what materials to use on different types of stone. Cleaning was "everyone's favorite job," as they experienced the satisfaction of seeing blackened monuments turn almost white with proper cleaning techniques. "I think a lot of it (the grime) was atmospheric pollution," from coal dust, smoke and smog, especially evident on marble surfaces, she added.
The participants stabilized and reset some small monuments. In addition, she said, "We actually tackled some large monuments," using a tripod and ropes to lift the heavy pieces.
Much of the damage to gravestones was caused by gravity or vandalism, workshop participants indicated. Falling trees also knocked over some monuments, including a tall one for the McLure family, at Mount Wood.
The McLure monument was standing upright until a couple of years ago, when it was felled by a falling tree branch, Karelis said, adding, "It is the largest metal one that Mount Wood has."
"Both cemeteries share a lot of issues, being on hillsides," she said. "They share gravity issues. Both hillsides like to move."
With the Young Preservationists and other groups intent on continuing the Mount Wood Cemetery conservation effort, the workshop provided direction for the future. As participants walked around with Appell, "he was pointing out different issues that Mount Wood has," Karelis said. "It helped us prioritize what needed our attention most."
Reflecting on the experience, Karelis commented, "The great thing about this workshop, it was very interactive and hands-on. Everyone left dirty and exhilarated. Everyone felt really empowered. We felt we could continue."
Looking ahead, she said, "We want to put together work teams to work in the cemetery."
Wheeling resident Elizabeth Paulhus, a founder of the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists, was one of the workshop participants. She commented, "The task ahead of us is certainly daunting, and the process of restoring headstones and monuments is not for the impatient. However, the enthusiasm for the effort during the workshop was palpable."
Paulhus related, "With each headstone that was righted, leveled, repaired and cleaned, excitement could be heard in the voices of the workshop participants. The biggest challenge now will be to raise sufficient funds to undertake the conservation and restoration of Mount Wood Cemetery."
The workshop was sponsored by WNHAC, the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia, the Irene Meagel Fund of the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley and Friends of Wheeling.
The city of Wheeling, which owns Mount Wood Cemetery, provided most of the materials - water, gravel and sand - for the workshop and sent three or four employees to the site. The privately-owned Mount Calvary Cemetery also sent two of its employees, Karelis said.
Regarding the efforts under way at Mount Wood, Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said, "That's a very unique cemetery. When we were approached to bring more light to the historic nature of the cemetery, we were very pleased to cooperate with that."
Jeanne Finstein, president of Friends of Wheeling and a workshop participant, said, "The cemetery contains the graves of two Revolutionary War veterans (Abdiel McLure, ancestor of the family that founded the McLure Hotel, and William Farris Sr.) and well over 100 veterans of the Civil War. Other notables include Noah Linsly (benefactor of Linsly School) and Simon Hullihen (one of the founders of Wheeling Hospital and regarded as the 'Father of Oral Surgery'). These graves alone merit recognition and remembrance."
Citing renewed interest in the cemetery's historic aspects, Finstein said, "About 250 people attended the Friends of Wheeling Mount Wood Cemetery Tour in May. An abbreviated virtual tour will be held at the Ohio County Public Library at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 1. Costumed characters will serve as first-person guides to the burial sites of 11 of the most well-known people whose final resting place is in Mount Wood. That event is free and open to the public."
Meagel, a Wheeling philanthropist who died in 1999, is buried at the Ohio County-owned Mount Zion Cemetery. Most of the day's attention there was focused on cleaning and resetting her grave marker. "Her stone was almost sliding off its base because of its location on the hillside," Karelis said.
Susie Nelson, executive director of the Community Foundation, participated in the workshop's session at Mount Zion, which is of particular interest to the organization that she leads. "One of our funds benefits Mount Zion," she said.
"It was really fascinating and rewarding," Nelson said of the workshop. "With our cemeteries being on hills, gravity is not a friend. It (conservation) is something that has been needed for a long time."
Nelson said she hopes organizers will be able to find a way to bring Appell back for another workshop or "practice what we learned from him."
To continue the conservation efforts, a Mount Wood Cemetery Fund has been established through the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley. An anonymous donor gave $5,000 to the fund and later offered to donate an additional $5,000 if the second sum is matched, Nelson said. To date, members of the community have contributed $3,645 toward that match, she said. "We're getting there," she added.
Regarding the Mount Wood Cemetery Fund, Herron said, "We are very pleased that people feel that this is a worthwhile project. We're glad that people think this is an important project and want to make contributions."
In a separate project, the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists are spearheading a massive effort to conduct a survey of grave plots at Mount Wood Cemetery and to produce definitive documentation of those buried in the graveyard. That work is ongoing, Paulhus and Karelis said.