Working to preserve a precious heritage with the help of dedicated volunteers

Soon after Joyce Davies and her husband Don Folkers moved into the parish house at the Ridge Church in Martinsville several years ago, Davies became aware that the Ridge Cemetery, which is owned by the Ridge Association, was in need of some serious attention in terms of maintenance and administration. “When I came up here and retired I needed a project so I volunteered to be in charge after Harold Wilson died. People were knocking at the door asking did I know where their ancestor was buried.”

The oldest section of the cemetery, in particular, had become overgrown, making many of the gravestones inaccessible. “The last three years we’ve cleared out a lot of brush and removed some trees so that now you can walk up to every stone. And now we’re in the process of getting the stones cleaned and repaired.”

This year, under Davies’ leadership, the Association hired Joe Ferrannini of Grave Stone Matters out of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., to perform conservation work on some of the oldest stones. He came in early September and was aided by volunteers from the Maine Old Cemetery Association (MOCA), a group of more than 700 members founded in 1968 to promote the preservation of Maine’s neglected cemeteries. MOCA billed their work with Ferrannini at the Ridge Cemetery as its annual four-day “Conservator-Led Cemetery Workshop.” A few years ago MOCA also held a similar workshop at the North Parish Cemetery in Wiley’s Corner (the Ridge Cemetery was historically known as the South Parish Cemetery).

According to MOCA president Jessica Couture, working under the tutelage of an experienced conservator like Ferrannini is a valuable opportunity for participants to learn hands-on the skills needed to clean and straighten stones—it is key never to use bleach or to sandblast, for example—along with finding out what’s involved in resetting dies into bases, making new bases, making epoxy repairs and replacing pins. “People will come into a cemetery with no training and do more damage than good,” Couture says. “It’s better if you don’t have any training to not do anything. What happens is that someone finds a grave stone laying unbroken on the ground, picks it up and sets it back into the ground improperly only to have it fall again—this time smashing into pieces.”

The Ridge Cemetery workshop attracted nearly 30 people—some of them, like Peggy Gillespie, Nancy Krusell, Ray Emerson and David Lowell from St. George, but others from around the state and beyond. One man, Joe Furlong, drove all the way from Iowa to get a chance to learn new techniques from Ferrannini.

“With these workshops what we want is for people either to observe or come do the work because it is really important that they take this information on what proper stone care is and bring it back to their towns because if your town is paying for this work to be done, it should be done right,” Couture explains. “We talked about it in our classroom session on the first day of the workshop. There was a town where they were going to power wash the grave stones and somebody who had been to one of these workshops spoke up and said, ‘Please don’t power wash our stones,’ and gave the town information on how destructive that can be. That’s what we want, for people to come to one of these workshops and then take the information elsewhere.”

Another benefit of the MOCA workshops, Couture adds, is that the participants provide free labor for the host cemetery project. She cites the example of the recent DAR project at Tolman Cemetery in Rockland. “The project was funded by a grant from the national DAR and Joe Ferrannini was hired to do the restoration work. But we put the word out that anyone who had done a four-day MOCA workshop could participate. They probably had thousands of dollars of free work done by people who had been trained at one of these workshops.”

An interest in preserving the stones in old cemeteries, Couture says, often stems from an interest in genealogy or local history. That was certainly the case for the Ridge Association’s Joyce Davies, who was a trustee of the cemetery association in Kingston, N.H., before moving to Maine. “My family had been in the Kingston area since the 1600s. It was my interest in genealogy that got me involved with the cemetery there.”

Joyce Davies of the Ridge Association. The grave stone of Artemas Davis shown here had apparently fallen over on its back and become completely buried until MOCA volunteers detected its presence next to the grave of Artemas’ wife during their four-day workshop at the Ridge Cemetery in early September. They cleaned the stone, repaired it and reset it into the ground.

While Davies doesn’t have the same personal connection with the Ridge Cemetery as she had with the cemetery in Kingston, she says she is keenly aware of how precious the heritage represented in the grave stones here is to this community. That also makes her very practical-minded about how best to ensure there are resources for continuing the preservation efforts she has been pursuing with Ferrannini and MOCA. As she points out, a key source of revenue for any cemetery is the sale of burial plots. “Right now you see about 10 acres of cleared land here being used for burials,” she says. With a note of satisfaction, she adds, “The Ridge Association has another 20 acres of forested land here as well—so there is plenty of room for expansion.”

To find out more about the Maine Old Cemetery Association (MOCA) go to On Saturday, September 30 MOCA will hold its Fall Program hosted by the Thomaston Historical Society at Watts Hall in Thomaston. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. (cost is $3) and the program begins at 9:15 a.m. Peggy McCrea, Historian of the Thomaston Historical Society, will speak about Black Thomaston Marble. Susan Devlin will also speak about the restoration of Major General Henry Knox’s grave site. Guided tours of the oldest parts of the Elm Grove and Thomaston Village cemeteries will follow at 1pm.—JW

PHOTOS: Top, Betsy Welch; below, Julie Wortman

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