Monday, July 15, 2024

Work day brightens more headstones at Union Cemetery

BELLEFONTE — Bellefonte’s historic Union Cemetery is an often-overlooked local treasure that is gaining more attention and support.

The Bellefonte Cemetery Association is working to restore the cemetery, founded in 1806, and hopes it will become a destination that visitors and locals use like a park. To make its dream a reality, the association needs the community’s help.

The Community Work Day on July 23 attracted 40 people to tend to the grounds and gravestones, including community volunteers, Bellefonte Cemetery Association board members and Penn State students from the Comm 100 class taught by BCA board member Renea Nichols.

The students had seen TikTok videos of dramatic improvements after headstones were cleaned in other locales. Nichols invited the students to learn to clean the stones and make their own TikToks.

Freshmen Jillian Bolio and Christina Winkler worked together to clean a large headstone.

“I’ve never done it before, and probably wouldn’t have done it without this opportunity,” Winkler said.

“It’s kinda fun,” Bolio added.

Volunteers focused on the old section of Union Cemetery, cutting grass and weeds, shifting headstones back onto bases and following instructions to carefully clean the headstones.

“We’re making a lot of progress, nearing 250 stones cleaned,” said board member Steven Richards. “We started with the Soldiers’ Circle graves, which are mostly Civil War. We have about 8,000 headstones, and people are still being buried here.

“We’d like to get a tripod lift and chain hoist to pick up heavy stones, to reset them or put them face up on bases so they can be read. Many are face down,” he said.

Richards said BCA would like to fix the cemetery’s leaking fountain so it could be used, and replace the benches that were once around it.

“Union Cemetery used to be a small city park,” he said. “The community’s really come out and helped in the last few months.”

“I hope to see the cemetery become one of Bellefonte’s tours,” said BCA President Jim Baldwin, who has volunteered for 30 years. He keeps spreadsheet records about the plots and knows their history.

“There’s a lot of people here who had a lot to do with state and county history,” he said. “Governors Curtin, Hastings and Beaver … Evan Pugh, the first president of Farmers’ College, which became Penn State … General Irvin, who donated the land for the college … the founders of Bellefonte, James Harris and James Dunlap.”

Nichols said the founding fathers of Bellefonte gave the cemetery to BCA. The cemetery isn’t segregated and has 952 veterans, with Civil War soldiers including eight soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops.

“I wasn’t that big a history buff until I started working in the cemetery,” Nichols said. “It needs to be preserved, remembered and honored. For the Victorians, cemeteries used to be parks and they’d have picnics. I love the whole Victorian vibe.”

She saw the cemetery becoming overgrown when prison inmates stopped mowing due to COVID-19 and the cemetery was relying on volunteers. Bellefonte Borough told her about BCA, which was down to two members — Baldwin and the treasurer, Paul Badger.

Nichols started recruiting people to the board to help, including Dave Saxton, who does most of the mowing and is responsible for the equipment and groundskeeping.

“I think Union Cemetery is a centerpiece for Bellefonte and the state,” Saxton said. “Paul, Jim and Bill Hughes kept it running for 15 years by themselves. Bill is no longer that involved.

“We need people to mow,” he added. “Our equipment is nearly 20 years old. We’re patching the one mower engine to keep it going until we can afford to get a new mower. We need more community members to come in. I have a busy life and volunteer about 20 hours per week. I’d love to have landscaping people and mechanics volunteer.”

Board member Lisa Carey is leading the effort to digitize the cemetery, and she manages the new website.

“You’ll be able to go to our website, look for a grave and GPS will walk you right to the spot,” she said. “The first section should be online in September or October. You’ll be able to click on the map to read the bios of people buried here.”

Nichols said that BCA hired a company, Chronical, to drone the whole cemetery. The association provided Chronical with a map of the gravesites so it could make an overlay.

“It’s a lot of money,” she said. “We have volunteers going down to document every single plot. Volunteers take photos and get GPS coordinates.”

Board member Connie Cole is a past president of the Centre County Genealogical Society. She and Richards take care of the headstones and monuments.

“Our original goal was to get the Soldier’s Circle so we could ID everyone and read all the stones, and it’s just grown,” she said.

“The VA says about 90 percent of headstones can be cleaned with Ivory soap,” she continued. “We try to clean with Ivory first and wait a couple days to see if D2 Biological Solution is needed.”

Nichols said a gallon of D2 costs $62.

Cole said that D2 kills lichen and moss for 18 months to a year, and the stones continue to brighten. A cleaning lasts 8 to 10 years.

“We have to take pictures and use enhancement software to read some of them,” Cole said. “There are three headstones in the old section that were legible in 2008 but are not legible now.”

The association uses limestone mortar instead of concrete to repair broken stones. Limestone mortar doesn’t freeze or crack and allows the stones to drain. Cole showed examples of damaged cradle graves that had broken headstones, footstones or sides.

“We’re limited in what we can do,” she said. “We only do maintenance. Or we can intervene if there’s a hazard. We are a nonprofit business selling graves. We can’t make money selling stones. We can get a missing stone from the VA if a descendent applies.”

Baldwin said, “We have an Adopt a Plot program. We hope people will adopt a soldier and take care of their grave by mowing and weeding.

“We’re starting to have equipment failure,” he continued. “It’s an expense we’re going to have to come up with. There’s a split tree, the mowers need repairs and gas is needed for the mowers and trimmers. One mower’s motor is near the end.

“The McCoy family donated the water fountain and it leaks. I hope we can get it fixed and use it again,” he said. “The benches around the fountain fell apart. We’d like to see the benches return. We’ve never had a flagpole and we should. These are things that are going to take time and money.

“We’re open to suggestions from the community within reason. We want our community to be proud of our cemetery. Everything depends on volunteers,” Baldwin said. “There’s so much history here. I became interested in Bellefonte history when I started hanging out in the cemetery and reading tombstones.”

Carey said that Union Cemetery is a 501(c)13 nonprofit. Donors can receive a tax deduction for most donations. If people specify a particular plot for their donation, it’s not tax-deductible. People can donate on the website or mail a check to Bellefonte Cemetery Association, P.O. Box 342, Bellefonte, PA 16823.

The association also welcomes in-kind donations of equipment, supplies and volunteer hours from the public and businesses, including expertise and equipment to help with projects and maintenance of the 20-acre cemetery.

The next community work day in August will be announced. For more information, visit or email [email protected].