“Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky... all we are is dust in the wind,” goes a popular song by Kansas.
Members of the Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps were working hard last week to make sure some of our local history doesn’t get buried before its time. Duluth’s Rolf Hagberg created the non-profit four years ago, which is dedicated to maintaining and repairing historic sites.
Derek Wolf, the Carlton Public Works superintendent, contacted Hagberg last year about doing some work on Hilltop Cemetery in Carlton.
“They’re family plots, people own the plots and the markers, but with generations getting older, the people are not coming out as much,” Wolf said. “We are losing the markers in the grass.”
When the stones begin sinking into the earth and the grass slowly begins growing over the top of the stones, they are difficult to see. That can cause problems with mowing the grass, as well as a tripping hazard and dismay for descendents who can’t find their ancestors.
The city does not have the manpower to dedicate to the project, so they decided to hire the job out. Last year they hired a company to come in and lift several of the large stones that tipped over the years.
This year the city brought in Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps to locate lost flat markers, clean grass off of the stones and dig stones up to fill under them and bring the stones level with the area.
According to its website, Northern Bedrock is building on the tradition of non-military service initiated in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and hires young adults working in crews to do hands-on historic preservation work throughout the state. Northern Bedrock is partnering with the Minnesota Historical Society to combine the need to preserve properties of historic significance with Northern Bedrock’s mission to provide meaningful employment and social development for young adults in Minnesota.
The craft of preserving our history has been slowly disappearing over the years, but Northern Bedrock want to change that.
The group works with a craftsman in the art of whichever project they are working on to learn the correct products to use and how to do it. Then they hire a small crew to work on projects for a month and teach them the trade.
Northern Bedrock was working on Hilltop Cemetery in Carlton for several days last week, before headed up to the Boundary Waters area to restore a few log structures. After two weeks of work there, they will be back in Carlton Oct. 7-8 to finish up.
If the markers are not cleaned, the lichen takes over and the stone begins to deteriorate.
“The first thing we learn in the training is, do no harm to the monuments,” Northern Bedrock’s Pete Bonk said.
Workers clean the stones with a lot of water and elbow grease and a special product to clean off the lichen.
“You don't want to use any products you find under your kitchen sink,” Bonk said.
The group searches for lost stones that have sunken over time, or become overgrown with grass. They located two markers that were totally lost from view in the Carlton cemetery. Sunken spots where old wooden coffins have deteriorated also can cause problems with walking and mowing the grass.
The team fills in low spots and then seeds it to bring the land level again.
They use a serrated kitchen knife to cut back the grass away from the stone, and then their hands to clean the dirt off.
“It's hard work, I have sore muscles at the end of the day, but I sleep well,” worker Jeanne Collins said.
Collins, 40, saw the job opening on the historical society facebook page. She thought it sounded interesting and applied, and has not been disappointed.
Once the gravestone has been cleared of grass, it will be about five years before it needs it again.
“These people are taking care of the flat markers … it becomes a safety issue with people walking,” Wolf said. He had noticed the need for repairs a few years ago.
Before the Northern Bedrock workers came to Carlton, they attended a one-day cemetery preservation training with Gerald Roll in Wisconsin to learn the proper technique.
The corps usually hires people ages 18-25. The month-long program teaches them a trade, and saves aging historic buildings and landmarks at the same time.
Crew leader Joshua Preston of Montevideo, Minn., 24, studied historic preservation in college. He was bored with spending time in the library reading about preservation and is excited to be putting his knowledge to work and making a difference.
“I have a greater appreciation of how we relate to history,” Preston said. “It's humbling.”
Duluth’s Zach Wilson, 19, met Bonk at Life House. The youth had been homeless about two years before being hired by the corps. He also had to compete for the job with two of his friends.
Wilson enjoys history and has helped to restore two houses before joining the corps. He is excited to learn more preservation skills and hopes it will help him in his future.
When his month with the corp is over, he plans to get his high school diploma.
“This is an experience most people don't have a chance to do,” Wilson said, adding, “I am excited to go to the Boundary Waters.”
The diverse group works well together on projects. While most of the people are from Minnesota, Ashley Brey, 23, hails from Minot, N.D. She came across the job opening on Craigslist. Brey spent many years on a farm helping her grandparents while growing up, so the work is second nature to her. She also had been looking for an opportunity to come to the Duluth area.
“I love it, I am looking for an excuse to do more,” Brey said.
The group makes out a menu plan, with everyone taking turns to planning and preparing meals. During a lunch break from the cemetery work, they planned meals for Boundary Waters, not wasting a minute of their time.
Former Eagle Scout Ryan Larson is from Elk River. He heard about the opportunity from his grandma.
“This has been fantastic,” Larson said, “I have learned how to organize a team with really different backgrounds.”
Everybody keeps busy, as one person hauls in fill, another person moves on to start clearing grass on another marker.
“This is somebody’s family member ... a monument to somebody, so it's important to maintain its visibility,” Bonk said passionately, as he cut the grass away from a marker with a knife.
“Edwin just gained five years,” Bonk said with satisfaction as he finished cleaning the grass away from the marker.
“We are going to be back out here Oct. 7 and 8,” Bonk said. “If people would like to come out and learn how to clean their family headstones, we are going to be out here teaching people how to do that.”
Check out the "Carlton Cemetery Preservation Project" video on our home page for a demonstration how to clear a grave marker.