Pierce Cemetery is, in the words of high school social studies teacher Ashley Greeley, “in embarrassing shape.” It is a true pioneer cemetery—that is, original settlers in this area of Indiana are buried there—but the grounds of the cemetery have been neglected for decades. Monuments have toppled, slabs have cracked, stones have sunk deep into the ground. But last week, members of Ms. Greeley’s AP US History class (APUSH, as it’s called) began putting the place to rights—and learning some local history along the way.
Students began with research about their own families, learning their way around online genealogical resources with a subject that was somewhat familiar. Then, Ms. Greeley assigned teams of students the name of someone who is buried in Pierce Cemetery.
To ensure some success in the research, students were assigned individuals for whom at least some information is known. Ms. Greeley had help in selecting the names from Lou Ann Clough (“LA”), archivist at the Tippecanoe County Historical Society, and Shane Weist, another local historian who was recently honored—one of 73 people in the country—by the Daughters of the American Revolution for his work in historical preservation. Previously, LA received this same Historical Preservation Recognition Award from the DAR, so the students were in good hands with LA, Shane, and Ms. Greeley as their guides to local history.
Ashley Greeley met Shane Weist and LA Clough last fall on Veterans Day when she and a handful of students showed up to help with the clean-up of Greenbush Cemetery, one of Lafayette’s oldest burial grounds. The students had enjoyed the restoration work and that got Ms. Greeley to thinking about the cemetery that is literally in Harrison High School’s own back yard.
Cleaning up Pierce Cemetery would be a way for her to highlight local history—this is, after all, Indiana’s bicentennial year—and at the same time underscore the APUSH goal of applying historical thinking skills. Ms. Clough was a guest speaker in the class. She explained the resources available to students online and at the Tippecanoe County Historical Society. At her invitation, seven students made an after school trip downtown to the Historical Society to use the Alameda McCollough Research Library. There they looked at actual documents relating to their person or family.
Permission to proceed with the work in the cemetery itself was secured from the Tippecanoe Township trustee, and then, on several May afternoons, Mr. Weist met the students on the cemetery grounds. He explained cemetery etiquette and cleaning procedures and directed the students as they cleaned the markers belonging to “their” people and their people’s relatives.
The students cleaned the stones with water—gently sprayed with a hose connected to a hand-held, hand-pumped container—and Revive, a professional masonry cleaner. “Never power wash a gravestone,” Weist told the students. “You’ll degrade the stone.” Similarly, he cautioned that bleach should never be used as a cleaning agent. Softly sprayed water and a mild solution of Revive was miraculous itself: Names appeared, dates became readable, carved symbols emerged like magic. “This is so satisfying!’ remarked one student, as information about a woman she’d had trouble researching began to reveal itself.
Weist, who is certified by the state of Indiana to do cemetery restoration, helped one team of students restore a monument that had fallen years ago. After the boys had cleaned the fallen obelisk, they washed the two stones that it had once rested upon. A “stack” compound (a mix of cement and lime) the consistency of peanut butter was spread on an area of the base of the first stone. When the mortar had dried sufficiently, the boys placed the second stone on top of the first. A joint compound—caulking—was worked around the seam to guard against moisture penetrating the joint—and then the process was repeated to ready the spot on the second stone where the obelisk would stand. Of course, it would be impossible to know which side of the obelisk originally faced forward, towards the entrance to the cemetery, but since there was carving on three sides, the team’s guess was pretty good. The stone no longer lies neglected at an angle on the ground. The obelisk stands tall, the family name facing forward now.
The students took pride in cleaning and restoring the graves. They began to see connections among members of the families buried there—a woman in one location, buried with her spouse, belonged to a family on the other side of the cemetery. A first wife was buried with her parents—she’d died young—but her husband had remarried and was buried with his second wife and their children just behind her. Children aged only a few days had been lovingly laid to rest, joined years later by their parents. In one case, a modest marker for a 4-year old was side-by-side with a replacement stone, a grander marker shared by the little boy and his older brother, who died years later at age 26.
A Revolutionary War soldier is buried at Pierce and several Civil War soldiers as well. Veterans of other wars, too, have found their final resting place in Pierce, and the students marked the graves with fresh American flags.
A group of boys, thrilled with the results of their elbow grease—the obelisk they had worked on restored to nearly its original white—smiled for the camera. Said one boy in their group, “We’re having so much fun we don’t need to be asked to smile.”
To fund the project, Ms. Greeley applied for and won our school district’s competitive Anne de Camp Award for Creative Teaching. She used the money for the cleaning supplies, for gravestone rubbing paper and special wax crayons, and for a Shutterfly book she and the students will create to document their project.
Work remains for the APUSH classes in years to come, but several students asked Shane Weist if they could help him with other cemetery restoration projects. The boy who didn’t need to smile for the camera is thinking about tying his Eagle Scout project to the restoration of Pierce.
Cemeteries like Pierce are “excepted” pieces of real estate. That is, the grounds surrounding the cemetery are privately owned (in this case, by the school district), but the cemetery itself is not part of the school property. It belongs to the township. Neglected for many decades and unused for burials in recent history, Pierce Cemetery had fallen, quite naturally, into disrepair. “I’ve been waiting for you,” LA Clough said to Ms. Greeley when the teacher first called her. Clough has been mapping cemeteries all over Tippecanoe County, but restoration work is laborious. It calls for a group effort.
Because of the students’ industry, Pierce Cemetery already looks remarkably better than it did last fall when Ms. Greeley first conceived of the project. Soon she and her students will be able to say, “Pierce Cemetery was in embarrassing shape—but now it’s not.”