Hobby of cleaning, restoring headstones becomes way to save history

EVART – Mark Wilson finds it a challenge to drive past area cemeteries.

It's not because he has family buried there or he's on the front line for the zombie apocalypse.

Wilson's eyes are caught by the aging headstones on graves, that over the years, have become worn by Michigan's weather, displaced from its base or even broken.

Wilson, whose 9-to-5 job is supervisor of the public works department for the City of Evart, has taken up the hobby of cleaning and fixing headstones.

"To me, it's preserving that person's legacy and the history of our community," Wilson said. "I hate to see them in terrible condition. I'm not sure it's much of a hobby anymore. It's become more like an addiction to me."

His trek into the hobby began when he first noticed some of the headstones at the city's Forest Hill Cemetery were in disrepair and needed some cleaning.

"The older stones get covered in biological organisms and become harder to read over the years," Wilson said. "Everyone sees these headstones when they visit a cemetery and thinks, 'Someone should do something about that.' I actually wanted to do that."

With the help of a National Parks Service workshop, Wilson was able to learn about the right way and wrong way to clean the different headstones used over the many decades, including granite, limestone, marble and even concrete.

Some of the older stones also were produced with multiple sections, which take additional time to clean. In some instances, Wilson said, the bases for these older stones have settled into the ground, sometimes as much as several inches.

"For just cleaning one stone, it takes about two-and-half hours," he said. "Sometimes it's a little longer, depending on the size."

Wilson's work on the old, dirty headstones hasn't gone unnoticed.

"There have been a lot of people who have stepped up to the plate to help out," he said. "They donate their time to help learn the right way to clean up the stones."

Wilson said there isn't an immediate change in appearance once the special biologic cleaner is applied to the stone.

"It takes some time for the cleaner to work," he said. "They go back a week after to look and notice some changes. It's not until the cleaner gets deeper after a few weeks do they really notice how much has been cleaned from the stone."

Along with a cleaner and an epoxy to help mend broken headstones, Wilson said his efforts have grown to become the Forest Hill Cemetery Historic Preservation.

However, Wilson isn't satisfied with a focus on the headstones at Forest Hill Cemetery.

"I can't help but stop at some of these smaller cemeteries, just to look and see what conditions the stones are in," he said. "You can see where they are trying to take care of the cemetery with what funds they do have."

Wilson said cemeteries in townships and smaller municipalities have the biggest risk for damage to headstones due to years of Michigan weather.

"It's expensive to upkeep the cemetery in general," he said. "Sometimes, all they can afford to do is mow the grass. It can get really expensive for a smaller entity to cover."

During his stops at cemeteries throughout the region and around the state, Wilson excitedly shares about the various headstones he's looked at.

"There are some headstones you see that go back to the 1880s," he said. "I keep looking around to find the oldest one I can find. I think it's amazing when you see some made by the same person in one area and then notice the same person did another one in another area."

Wilson said he likes seeing the different eccentricities of some of the older headstones around the area.

"I've seen some headstones between 1910 to 1920 that are made from concrete," he said. "They are all sort of regionally placed, or just what was probably the cheapest way to do it back then. Some of them around the Chase area and south are very well done and in super condition."

More notable, Wilson said, is seeing Woodmen of the World headstones. At the turn of the century, life insurance policies by the Woodmen of the World included free grave markers.

"Those ones can be very elaborate and all from around the same period," he said. "It's intriguing to me to see these old headstones and they're not being taken care of properly. I imagine in some cases, families have moved away or out of state. They get sort of forgotten.

"I think with genealogy becoming popular, people are starting to really want to find out where they're from and preserve their family's history, save that legacy."

Other times, Wilson sees the affects of people having good intentions, but end up doing more damage than good.

"They're trying to do the right thing by cleaning it up, but they end up power washing the stone," he said, shaking his head. "It becomes nearly unreadable."

With winter setting in, Wilson said he hopes to spend the colder months educating area townships and municipalities about preserving headstones at their cemeteries.

"There aren't many people around the state who do this," he said. "It's time consuming, of course, but if it's done right, these will last for several more years.

"There is a cost for the tool, the cleaner and the epoxy, but it's about the legacy of these people who came before us. It's our history, too."