This is a selection from a framed philosophy that hangs in the office of Lake Forest Cemetery. And, for the most part, it sums up why I have such reverence and respect for it.
The vast amount of historical record linked to the Grand Haven cemetery's 25,000-plus graves makes it an invaluable link to our community’s past.
Unfortunately, many of the headstones have weathered significantly, and their lettering and imagery are difficult to make out. That’s because monument stones fashioned from quarried rock — such as marble, limestone and sandstone — are helpless against relentless attacks from the elements. The porous nature of these stones allows for the growth of algae, mold, mosses and lichens. It also traps dirt and grime from air pollution, or stains from metallic embellishments.
In more populated areas, sulfur dioxide and acid rain from the burning of coal has rendered many marble stones unreadable in a relatively short period of time.
In many cemeteries, including our own, what were once intended to be permanent markers have proven only to be temporary.
Near the south end of Lake Forest Cemetery is a section reserved for the Benjamin K. Weatherwax monument — placed there more than 100 years ago by the Grand Army of the Republic Post 75 — and the graves of 15 Civil War veterans. It is composed of a marble pedestal sandwiched between a Bedford limestone base and statuette.
The G.A.R. formed after the end of the Civil War as a fraternal organization for war veterans. It eventually grew into a powerful political force that founded soldiers’ homes, lobbied for veterans’ pensions and ensured that President Lincoln’s promise to care for “those who have bore the burden, his widows and orphans” was not left undone — something that the government promised to do, but lacked the knowledge to accomplish.
The Weatherwax Post met in several different locations, including the Armory, the Odd Fellows Hall and the Ottawa County Courthouse. Every year on May 30 (Decoration Day) between 1890 and 1924, the G.A.R. marched to the monument from downtown and conducted a ceremony to honor those who served and died to preserve the Union. Highlights included a reading of the Gettysburg Address.
In April 2012, the monument’s condition was assessed by Bruce Butgereit, a stone cleaning professional and member of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. Part of the Sons' mission is to record the locations and conditions of any Civil War monuments in their area, and then offer recommendations for restoration, if needed.
After looking it over, Butgereit pointed out numerous areas of weathering. Black mold had penetrated and accumulated on both the horizontal and vertical surfaces. Significant growth of moss and lichens were evident on the front of the statuette’s coat and back of the head. Additionally, the surrounding headstones were blackened with mold and dirt.
Butgereit suggested the use of a cleaning solution called D/2 that could not only remove most of the dirt and mold growth, but was environmentally safe as well. It is made by the same company that manufactures Simple Green cleaning products.
After we obtained permission from both the cemetery board and the City of Grand Haven (which erected scaffolding around the monument), we purchased the cleaning solution, thanks to an anonymous donor.
Twenty-three local individuals answered our call for volunteers, and all proved eager to help scrub and get dirty in the process. We scrubbed for almost five hours and, after just 10 days, the monument and surrounding headstones have shown a significant improvement. The solution will continue to clean for weeks.
Next week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. To commemorate the battle, as well as honor our veterans, a rededication ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, July 13, at Lake Forest Cemetery and will be administered by the John A. Logan Camp No. 1 of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War — legally recognized as the heir to and representative of the G.A.R.
Immediately following the ceremony, Loutit District Library will host a guided tour of the graves of nine local Civil War veterans who served at Gettysburg. Visitors will also have the opportunity to view a selection of Civil War artifacts that will be on display inside Lee Chapel.
I am hopeful that the impressive results of the Weatherwax monument cleaning may serve as a springboard for other headstone restoration projects within Lake Forest Cemetery.
The time and attention given to cleaning and preserving headstones and monuments is most certainly time well-spent. It not only signifies a deep appreciation for the memories of our loved ones who have gone before us, but helps preserve tangible evidence of their legacies for all who remain.
— Jane Ladley is curator of services for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven.