Group of volunteers mines cemeteries for genealogical finds
Connie Putthoff looks deep into the brush and spots a stone sticking out of the ground. She ventures a few feet into the ankle-high mixture of grass and weeds to take a closer look at what could be another undiscovered headstone at the Davenport Cemetery, which is a few miles south of Tonganoxie.
"There's another one," she excitedly calls out to the rest of the group asking for them to come over.
She can't immediately get to the headstone without first clipping away some of the vegetation. Putthoff asks Theresa Megee to get a set of hedge clippers from her bag while Theresa's husband, Mike, starts to clear away the grass with his hands.
The headstone, which is missing a large diagonal half, marks the final resting place of an unknown soul with two pieces of information: "Died Sept. 1874" and the last name of "Warren" inscribed underneath.
Jim Claunch takes a picture and marks the headstone on his map while Linda DiSanto writes the inscription on a notebook.
Trudging around weed-infested graveyards in 90-degree weather under a scorching afternoon sun might not sound like loads of fun to many people. But for these county residents interested in preserving and documenting local history, there isn't a better way to spend their weekend.
"History is just part of what I like to do," said Putthoff, president of the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society. "I like stuff like this; it's just fun."
For the past three months, Putthoff, the Megees and DiSanto have joined with Claunch and Jeff Culbertson, geographic information system department director for Leavenworth County, on a gravesite mapping project.
The project started when Claunch, a former Army man who still works at Fort Leavenworth, began mapping the old gravesites. It was a way to return a favor to the people who had helped him find family information in Texas from a Web site where the users freely volunteer their time to help answer anybody's genealogical questions.
"I asked a guy down in Texas to help me find my great-grandmother's headstone. The guy spent the better part of a weekend looking for the headstone," Claunch said. "I asked if there was anyway I could pay him back. He said I should just volunteer to help other people, so I volunteered for Leavenworth County."
After some time, Claunch came to see Culbertson about finding the location of a cemetery. He had hoped the county would have the location on record, but he did not have any luck.
"I get someone in here every other week, asking to tell them where an ancestor was buried," Culbertson said. "They figured the county has an index of the cemeteries, but we don't because many of them are individual gravesites or private."
Because the county did not have many records for gravesites other than some of the bigger cemeteries, Claunch gave Culbertson all of the information he had been collecting over the years about different gravesites. The information allowed Culbertson to create a countywide map of small cemeteries. The map currently contains 117 different cemeteries and burial sites peppered across the county.
Putthoff and Theresa Megee recently got in contact with Culbertson, who then connected them with Claunch. Now, every couple weeks the group gets together to plan out which cemeteries they are going to visit next.
The group's main goal is to catalog every gravestone and create a database, which will include all of the information available from county records, inscriptions on the gravestones, digital photographs of the grave markers and even GPS coordinates of the sites. This way, anybody who wants to look up the burial records will have a quick and easy way to get an abundance of information.
All such records now are kept on paper and some records are not kept in any particular order, making it difficult for genealogists to find family history.
The group's secondary goal is to find a way to maintain and preserve the cemeteries and headstones, which can date to the mid-19th century.
Claunch said many of these cemeteries are in bad shape because the landowners don't keep up with the lawn-mowing or weeding. Of course, owner maintenance can be a double-edged sword.
Without the owners taking their lawn mowers to the site, it would be nearly impossible for the group to walk around looking for headstones and markers. But oftentimes, the headstones don't look any different than the surrounding rocks and they get trampled on and broken up by the mowers. That can take away any hope of identifying who is laid beneath.
Because Kansas statutes dictate that counties are responsible for cemeteries, Culbertson has been working on getting county funding and support for a comprehensive restoration and maintenance plan.
"What we thought was taking the public works director out to the sites to come up with a game plan on how to proceed to get them cleaned," Culbertson said.
Some of the current ideas are to use chemical herbicides such as Round Up and Tordon and possibly using inmate labor to help clear the areas of unwanted plant growth to allow the group to continue cataloging.
For now, Putthoff said they are always looking for volunteers to help them with the sites, but they are especially looking for anybody who knows where other small burial sites could be.
"Our job is not over yet, we're just going to keep going until we get finished," she said.