Gravestone preservation workshop offers hands-on approach

05/13/2019 09:15 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Katy Faye Fleming, of Tulsa, left, and Cherokee Nation citizen Brenda Freeman, of Oktaha, clean a gravestone May 2 at Tahlequah City Cemetery as part of a hands-on preservation workshop. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Nationally known gravestone and masonry conservator Jonathan Appell repositions a headstone on May 2 at Tahlequah City Cemetery. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A gravestone preservation workshop takes place on May 2 at Tahlequah City Cemetery. Designed to increase awareness about gravestone preservation, the annual workshop focuses on how to clean and reset stones, repair fragmented tablets and generally use the proper materials. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Bob Crumrine, of Norman, helps level a gravestone on May 2 during a workshop at Tahlequah City Cemetery. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – Eager to brush up on proper gravestone care, a dozen budding preservationists gathered May 2 at Tahlequah City Cemetery for a two-day workshop.

“It’s just very hands-on, kind of chaotic frankly, but I like it,” participant and Tulsa taxidermist Katy Faye Fleming said.

Designed to increase awareness about gravestone preservation, the annual workshop focuses on cleaning and resetting stones, repairing fragmented tablets and generally using proper materials.

“As stones grow older, they tend to deteriorate,” Cayla Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Oklahoma, said. “So most of the stones that we’re working with are over 100 years old. We are learning all that can happen to basically give each stone a longer life.”

This was the ninth annual collaboration between Preservation Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism.

“We would never, ever have all these wonderful restorations if it wasn’t for the Cherokee Nation,” Beth Herrington, local historian and Tahlequah Historic Preservation Board chairwoman, said. “It’s been a godsend to our city.”

Some participants were learning for the first time while others hoped to fortify proper restoration techniques they learned at previous workshops. Two-time attendee and Cherokee Nation citizen Brenda Freeman, of Oktaha, said she strives to better care for a family cemetery between Hulbert and Wagoner.

“This is reinforcement,” she said. “It’s very important to keep our cemetery stones where we can read them and preserve them. Some of them are just fieldstones. There’s one stone that is a very nice stone in syllabary. I would like to have somebody tell me who it is. I’m sure it was (translated) at one time, but that generation is gone.”

Fleming, 26, the workshop’s youngest participant, said she volunteers her time helping restore vandalized or neglected cemeteries in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

“After the Victory Cherokee Cemetery (in Collinsville) was vandalized in October of last year, I helped organize volunteer groups and helped clean up,” she said. “But my favorite places to work are the ones that are off the road, overgrown, untended. It’s quiet work.”

Fleming was also drawn to the expertise of workshop leader Jonathan Appell.

“I really respect what he does,” Fleming said. “Each time I’ve taken his classes, he always manages to incorporate something I hadn’t read in my own research.”

Appell, 58, a nationally known gravestone and masonry conservator, lives in Connecticut, where he and his twin sons run Atlas Preservation, a monument and building restoration supply company.

Appell has performed gravestone preservation and planning projects on historic cemeteries throughout the country, including the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.; The Granary in Boston; Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York; The First Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Greensboro, North Carolina; and The New Haven Crypt in New Haven, Connecticut.

“I’ve been working on monuments since about 1986, but I’ve been specializing on historic since about 1999,” he said. “I’ve taught people all over the country. I just teach people a lot of tricks that I’ve learned by working on this for a long time.”

Gravestones are at risk of damage from weather, lawnmowers, chemical weed-killers, bleach and a host of other substances, experts say. Appell said he prefers more specialized, non-abrasive solutions.

“Cleaning is popular,” he said. “Anyone can clean, and there’s a need for that. But household chemicals, any acids, generally are not good, or wire brushes. So things that might produce really quick results that seem good can be just grinding away stone.”

The other issue, Appell said, is “when things break and people fix them with really hard concrete or cements.”

“You can have really quick results like that, and usually the end result is bad,” he said. “They will tend to re-break eventually, and it makes it impossible to rework.”

Instead, he uses certain epoxy resins. “An adhesive like that is hard to get apart, but if it does come apart, then you could chisel that away. It’s a lot different than a mortar.”
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