2008-05-31 / Top News

American Legion and Volunteers Clean Gravestones To Preserve History

By Diane Ivey

Paul Martin Wandrie scrubs headstones with a mix of bleach and water at Ste. Anne's Catholic Cemetery. He and other volunteers helped clean up veterans' gravestones Sunday, May 25. Paul Martin Wandrie scrubs headstones with a mix of bleach and water at Ste. Anne's Catholic Cemetery. He and other volunteers helped clean up veterans' gravestones Sunday, May 25. Time has taken its toll on the cemeteries of Mackinac Island.

On the sides of family plots, etched in giant marble crosses, and along the wings of cement angels, moss, dirt, and sun damage have all but obliterated the careful lettering, making many stones illegible, even from up close.

The American Legion Post 299 is attempting to turn back time, armed with only bleach, scrub brushes, and buckets of water.

Cleaning headstones of veterans was the goal of American Legion members and volunteers as they gathered at Ste. Anne's Catholic Cemetery at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 25, to start the work.

Volunteers will work three more weekends in June, July, and August to complete the project, as they hope to visit all cemeteries by the end of the summer, said Post Commander Paul Wandrie, who helped organize the event.

"We're starting with the veterans' graves, but we'd like to clean any gravestones that need it," Mr. Wandrie said. "It's a beautiful cemetery, but many of the stones are in bad, bad shape. We want to make them nice again."

Post Commander Paul Wandrie brushes dirt away from the headstone of Sgt. Major Benoni LaChance, a Civil War veteran and 1867 Justice of the Peace. Mr. Wandrie and the American Legion cleaned headstones for veterans as part of a summer-long cemetery maintenance project. "Finding the little historical details makes it fun," he said. "It's like a treasure hunt." Post Commander Paul Wandrie brushes dirt away from the headstone of Sgt. Major Benoni LaChance, a Civil War veteran and 1867 Justice of the Peace. Mr. Wandrie and the American Legion cleaned headstones for veterans as part of a summer-long cemetery maintenance project. "Finding the little historical details makes it fun," he said. "It's like a treasure hunt." Mr. Wandrie, along with his wife, Amanda, and son, Paul Martin, worked with cemetery caretakers, volunteers from the post, and employees of the city's Department of Public Works, where he works.

One of the post's goals, Mr. Wandrie said, is to compile a list of local American Civil War veterans. Often, because of the conditions of the stones and inaccuracies in the former list, veterans' graves go unnoticed and even unmarked.

"We're working off a list from 1981," Mr. Wandrie said, "so it's growing increasingly difficult to find some of these veterans. We hope cleaning the stones will lead us to any soldiers who might not be on the list."

Most graves are damaged by time and the elements. Although many headstones are made from marble, moss and water damage have made them impossible to read, he said.

"One time I was cleaning a monument, and I thought only the cross on top was made of marble. Instead, it turned out the entire monument was solid marble, but you couldn't see it under the dirt," Mr. Wandrie said.

Volunteers used a mixture of diluted bleach and water to clean the headstones. American Legion member and Iraq war veteran Ben Horn cleaned older, larger stones and monuments with a power washer.

"The power washer makes a huge difference," Mr. Horn said. "Obviously, you can't use it on smaller stones or anything you're not sure is marble. But it gets the dirt out of any larger headstone in a few minutes."

Mr. Wandrie, a history buff, said it's important to keep the graves clean and legible because of their historical significance.

"Some of the families buried here are so old that they don't have anyone visiting their graves," he said. "We still need to keep those headstones looking great, or they won't be around for future generations."

Candy Smith said she could see the difference in the cleaned headstones already.

"They look so much better," she said. "Some were so black that I couldn't even read them close-up. With just a little bleach and water, I can see the letters, even when I'm standing 10 feet away."

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