Sunday, November 19, 2000

Tombstones tell stories of life

Restoring cemeteries a passion

        CRITTENDEN, Ky. — Bob Weis is talking to a dead woman. “C'mon up, lady,” he says.

        He's on his knees in the Crittenden Community Cemetery, tugging on a buried tombstone. For years, it was hidden under grass and dirt, but Mr. Weis could see the dimple in the lawn, and using his homemade probe, he found the stone.

        Now he's raising the evidence of Julia Ann Gregg's short life. As the sun hits the faded carving, we can make out the words: She was born in 1842 and died at the age of 10 years, 1 month and 15 days.

[photo] Bob Weis of Union, Ky., unearths the tombstone of Nathaniel Gregg in Crittenden Community Cemetery.
(Patrick Reddy photos)
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        Mr. Weis has no idea who Julia Ann was. Nevertheless, she matters to him. They all do — all these Kentuckians who lived, loved, died and were forgotten, their graves robbed by time and indifference.

        Restoring old cemeteries is Mr. Weis' passion. For a living, he helps run a tugboat company on the Ohio River. For fun, he and his 11-year-old son, Brian, clear away brush, identify old gravesites and research the histories of the dead.

        “I don't play golf,” says Mr. Weis, 57, of Boone County. “I love history. I enjoy finding out anything I can.”

        In search of his own ancestors, he began exploring cemeteries in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois about 10 years ago. Tombstones are important resources for genealogists, because the dates on them can be more reliable than government records.

        The more Mr. Weis explored, the more he fretted over abandoned grave sites. Searching for family names in Grant County, he came across the old Lebanon cemetery in 1998 and asked whether he could clean it up.

        “Have at it,” said Edna Cummins, secretary of the Grant County Preservation Board, which owns the property.

        Mr. Weis, his wife, Bonnie, son Brian and daughter Jennifer got to work. They fired up chain saws and weed cutters. Struggling through the undergrowth, they placed flags where graves appeared to be.

        Once the area was cleared, the Weises began uncovering, cleaning and repairing stones. Ms. Cummins, owner of the B&E Restaurant in Crittenden, helped record the names.

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        “He's one of a kind,” she says of Mr. Weis. “You don't have too many people willing to go out and work, clean it up and try to preserve it.”

        Mr. Weis also has been helping restore the segregated portion of the Crittenden Community Cemetery, where black people had been buried. One of the old stones there indicates the deceased was "colored," suggesting the back area was set aside for African-Americans.

        Over the summer, members of First Christian Church cleared brush and trees there. They hope to eventually beautify the back, so it blends with the rest of the cemetery.

        Even when grounds are well-maintained, old tombstones often fall over as wooden caskets cave in, Mr. Weis says. They end up covered with grass because peo ple don't want to mow around them, he says.

        His tools are a shovel and a probe made of two steel rods welded into a T. To find graves, he sticks the probe into the earth. Where it sinks easily, he knows dirt was overturned for a casket.

        Last Thursday, Mr. Weis knelt in the grass at the Crittenden cemetery. Despite the cold wind, he worked without gloves, because they can dull his sensitivity to the probe.

        He pulled up a tuft of grass, uncovering a stone inscribed with the first name "Nathaniel,' born in 1806. The last name is partially obscured: "G-R-E...'

        “That bugs me,” said Mr. Weis. He had to know the name. His eyes swept the ground, settling on another indentation.

        “What we could do is find out who's right there, and find out if their stone's better,” he said.

        In seconds, he had uncovered a second stone. Julia Ann Gregg. Nathaniel must be a relative.

        He has written a report on the Lebanon cemetery, including information about those buried there and his thoughts while restoring their graves.

        “They came over the mountains in wagons, loaded with all their worldly belongings,” he wrote. “They had to force their way to their destination, sometimes making only a few miles a day.”

       Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at 859-578-5584 or

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