Volunteers learning to preserve tombstones and monuments rolled up their sleeves Wednesday as national masonry conservation specialist Jonathon Appell led them through a workshop at Tahlequah City Cemetery.
A member of the Preservation Trades Network from Connecticut, Appell is teaching locals in a two-day seminar how to clean masonry safely, repair fragmented stones, reset loose or crooked stones, and how to use infill material and tools for re-pointing and repairing.
Gravestone preservation and planning projects on which Appell has worked include the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.; the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Greensboro, N.C.; the Granary in Boston; and The Haven Crypt in Connecticut.
After an adhesive compound was applied to the base of a monument, Ron Nimmo, of Bartlesville, was helping Appell walk the top stone up to the base and ease it up onto the top. Once it was in place, the men pressed in down into place.
“I love graveyards and I hate to see them deteriorate,” said Nimmo. “Now that I’m retired, I can do more of this.”
It was surprising to Nimmo how quickly the work was going Wednesday.
“It’s amazing how many monuments we repaired, set, and set straight today,” Nimmo said.
Over the course of the two days, Appell said the group would probably be able to work on 20 to 25 gravestones.
This is Appell’s third visit to Oklahoma to teach workshops. He’s been working full-time in conservation for 15 years all over America, giving seminars and working projects in historic grave yards. Originally he was a modern monument installer in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Connecticut, when he became aware of the need for preserving the historic gravestones.
“I love what I do, helping preserve history,” said Appell. “Literally every town in America has needs like this, but not all have funding.”
He appreciates the grass-roots effort it takes to help local communities find funding for this work.
“I’ve worked with stones from the late 1600s, in doing historic preservation and working with historic structures and architecture,” said Appell.
He hopes people will learn about proper cleaning and how overly aggressive cleaning is harmful.
“People need to be cautious around historic objects, and they should try to learn more about what to do and not do,” Appell said.
For Lisa Melchior, a board member with Preservation Oklahoma, the Saline Preservation Association and a Cherokee Citizen, the experience is exciting and gratifying. She’s impressed with how with just a few common tools and blocks of wood, one person can move a huge monument, fix it or level it.
“We began this to save the tombstones at the Saline Courthouse,” said Melchior.
No one is this area was qualified to do the work, so Melchior searched on the Internet and found Appell.
“He started coming to preserve history that was crumbling and falling apart, our last known history of people,” Melchior said. “Paper disappears, but we can preserve these. We’re fortunate to get the top gravestone conservator and expert in the nation here.”
Participants came from the Muscogee Creek Nation, Wichita Nation, Kansas, Texas and individuals from the region.
“It’s a good opportunity to bring a mix of entities, people and tribes together, to bring this knowledge back to the community,” said Travis Owens, planning and development manager with Cherokee Nation Entertainment. “Some here are interested in preserving for their own families.”
Beth Herrington was enjoying the day, watching the work in progress and taking notes.
“There is a way to preserve our heritage through tombstones with people restoring them, rather than destroying them,” said Herrington, a board member of the City of Tahlequah Historic Preservation committee.
The Tahlequah cemetery is a repository of the history of this area dating back to 1888. It has six principal and deputy chiefs, and many of the founding business and professional citizens of Tahlequah, said Herrington.
“We’re thrilled to death about this workshop and the work being completed here, and the people who have come here to learn to preserve their gravestones and take the knowledge back home with them,” she said.
Another board member of the preservation committee sat with Herrington learning more about the proper way to use monument putty.
“Everyone should know never to use bleach on a tombstone, because it will eventually disappear,” said Shirley Pettengill. “And never use Portland cement.”
While working, Appell overheard the conversation and added, “Use less Portland cement and add more sand and more lime. It may have gray in it due to iron, so buy it with the iron removed.”
The three entities sponsoring the workshop are the Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism, Preservation Oklahoma and the Saline Preservation Association.
For more information, go to Appell’s website, gravestonepreservation.info.