Preserving Maine's history, one headstone at a time

15 Aug 2016 1:57 PM | Debi Curry (Administrator)

VALERIE TUCKER PHOTO
Each summer, the Maine Old Cemetery Association hires Joe Ferrannini, owner of Grave Stone Matters, to teach attendees the basics of stone cleaning and repair. The cemetery restoration expert hauls his business-on-wheels to Maine from upstate New York, carrying everything from rinse water to a tripod and chain haul to raise and lower stones weighing hundreds of pounds. The two cemetery workshops this year are in the Franklin County towns of Industry and Wilton. At the West Mills workshop in Industry, workshop leader Joe Ferrannini guided participant Albert Stehle, of Bowdoinham, in proper techniques to straighten veterans' stones after repairing damaged bases.

Valerie Tucker, Special to the Sun Journal

INDUSTRY — The rural West Mills cemetery has very few visitors, although it serves as the final resting place for many of the area's founding families.

Each summer, the Maine Old Cemetery Association hires Joe Ferrannini, owner of Grave Stone Matters, to teach attendees the basics of stone cleaning and repair. The cemetery restoration expert hauls his business-on-wheels to Maine from upstate New York, carrying everything from rinse water to a tripod and chain haul to raise and lower stones weighing hundreds of pounds. The two cemetery workshops this year are in the Franklin County towns of Industry and Wilton. At the West Mills workshop in Industry, workshop leader Joe Ferrannini guided participant Albert Stehle, of Bowdoinham, in proper techniques to straighten veterans' stones after repairing damaged bases.

For four days in August, all of that changed as their headstones were scrubbed and their bases straightened and repaired. The Maine Old Cemetery Association scheduled two cemetery restoration workshops in the state this year, both in Franklin County.

The first group of two dozen attendees gathered on Friday morning at the Industry Fire Station for an orientation. Before getting to the historic West Mills cemetery on the Shaw Road, the downpour soaked them and their buckets of tools.

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Undeterred, MOCA representatives Cheryl Willis-Patten and Jessica Couture, along with restoration specialist Joe Ferrannini, owner of Grave Stone Matters, carried on with their plans. Participants learned how to clean the acid-rain darkened stones, repair a few of the damaged stones, and, as instructor Joe Ferrannini cautioned, "Do no harm."

Joe, who lives in Hoosick Falls, New York, loves to come to Maine to teach these workshops. He considers this work a second career that suits his passion for history, genealogy and old cemeteries. With a college degree in mathematics and history, he spent 20 years with trucking companies, but decided to take a chance.

"In the worst economy we've had for years, I decided to start my own business," he said with a laugh.

He hasn't regretted that decision and has been able to travel the region and work with eager volunteers and municipalities who want to preserve their town's history.

He suggested methods researched, tested and used by the experts in care of veterans' stones and markers. The National Park Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration oversee thousands of veterans' gravestones and markers and they offer helpful directions for those who care for gravestones. 

Why would anyone want to clean a gravestone? The simple answer is to preserve the artifacts of the past. Many of those gravestones and monuments belong to veterans who fought and often died for their country over the past four centuries. 

A headstone is intended to honor the deceased and should be treated with respect, Willis-Patten said. Over time, it takes on different meanings for those who visit, and reminds citizens of the many veteran's who have served their country.

Ferrannini told attendees he adheres to a few strict rules for cleaning.

"Never power wash, and never, ever use wire brushes, sanders or grinders to clean a stone's surface," he said.

Marble, for example, is very porous, and when the surface is cleaned with abrasive tools and chemicals, the patina is damaged permanently. Grains start to loosen and wash away, and the surface develops a sugary coating and discolors more easily. Inscriptions will erode, making the headstone harder to read. Headstones in shady and damp areas may need to be cleaned more frequently than headstones in sunny areas.

Stone cleaners should take a picture, if possible, to document the before-and-after cleaning results, and keep a record of the dates, locations and the information carved on each stone. Ferrannini also showed how to use a mirror to reflect the light across the face of the stone to make lettering easier to read.

Albert Stehle, a mason from Bowdoinham, said he has gone to other MOCA workshops and said he's becoming more interested in following in Ferrannini's footsteps.

"My Ridge Restoration business includes repairing old houses and chimneys, and I really like doing this," he said, as he dug the old mortar from a broken headstone base. "It's important to take care of these old stones."

Ferrannini says he uses D/2 Biological Solution, the preferred cleaner for the National Park Service and Department of Veterans Affairs. In Maine, the cleaner is carried by A. H. Harris & Sons in their Augusta, Portland and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, locations.

"Marble cleaned with biocides can continue to lighten over the next few months, so be patient," he advised. "Don't expect stones to look new, since they are, in some cases, hundreds of years old."

Attendees were advised to use gloves and eye protection and avoid splashing the cleaner during spray applications. A three-person team can clean many stones quickly and efficiently, with one wetting the stone and spraying the cleaner, one brushing or scrubbing the stone, and one rinsing the stone. The process requires a lot of clean water. If the cemetery does not have clean running water, bring plenty of extra water to the site.

Ferrannini refers beginners to "A Graveyard Preservation Primer," written by Lynette Strangstad. The book is a valuable resource for methods of protection and preservation of historic graveyards. Much information found in the first 1980 publication has been updated to include technology and digital tools.

See MOCA's Workshops for more information about cemetery education opportunities.

Make a Donation to support future workshops

*reprinted with permission

Dedicated to the Preservation of Maine's Neglected Cemeteries since 1968.
Maine Old Cemetery Association, PO Box 641, Augusta, ME 04332-0641
MOCA is a non-profit Maine corporation and is tax exempt under the provisions of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

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