OLD FRONTENAC -- Five Americorps volunteers recently spent a week restoring approximately 50 tombstones in the historic cemetery in Old Frontenac which features graves from the Civil War, First and Second World Wars, Korean War, Vietnam War, as well as many of the early settlers of the area.

The volunteers work with a group called Northern Bedrock out of Duluth, and they travel throughout Minnesota for the summer doing restorations.

“Northern Bedrock is part of Americorps,” said Jaci Bedtka, a volunteer from Prairie du Chien, Wis. “People from 18-25 can join and learn how to do this historic preservation work and gain valuable work experience.”

Bedtka said that one of the problems for old cemeteries is that there is no real standard for how to maintain them.

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“There are so many different historic cemeteries,” she said. “They all have different needs. They were built by different cultures and in different times, and not everyone who maintains a cemetery knows the best way to do that.”

Restoring tombstones can involve some very detailed work, according to Bedtka. She said if the work is not done carefully, the historic stones could be damaged forever.

Lucienne Devitt, a recent graduate of St. Olafs College, cleans moss and lichen from a tombstone in Old Frontenac Cemetery. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Lucienne Devitt, a recent graduate of St. Olafs College, cleans moss and lichen from a tombstone in Old Frontenac Cemetery. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

“We are using historic skills in ways of keeping up on the preservation of these cemeteries, and applying them through contemporary means,” said volunteer Elijah Been from Minneapolis. “We are doing this the same way they would have many years ago, but we are using newer tools.”

In a cemetery as old as the one in Frontenac, the volunteers find that many of the tombstones are leaning or have fallen down. They even had several stones that, after years of rain runoff and blowing dirt, have been completely buried. Two of the stones had to be located by probing into the ground and then volunteers had to dig them out and reset them.

Been pointed to one stone that was what he called a “full reset,” meaning the stone had to be cleaned, a new hole dug, the base set in the ground, and the stone replaced on the base.

Some of the stones are broken and have to be reassembled using an epoxy solution. Volunteers use a wooden frame and clamp the stone to the frame, allowing the epoxy to dry for 24 hours before they replace the stone to its location.

Elijah Been, Minneapolis, right, and Lucienne Devitt, Chicago, team up to lift a tombstone upright before using the chain and pulley system to place it on the base stone. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Elijah Been, Minneapolis, right, and Lucienne Devitt, Chicago, team up to lift a tombstone upright before using the chain and pulley system to place it on the base stone. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Krys Manchette, a volunteer from Hudson, Colo., said many of the base stones in the Frontenac Cemetery are limestone blocks that were quarried from the bluff in what is now Frontenac State Park. She added that many of the tombstones show evidence that someone else tried to shore them up with rocks to keep them from tilting.

In working with the larger tombstones, the Northern Bedrock crew first sets the base stone in place, then applies epoxy where the upper stone will sit. They use a wooden tripod with a chain pulley system to allow them to lift and move the upper stones into place.

Jamie Lorentzen, chair of the Frontenac Cemetery Association, praised the volunteers for the quality of work they did during the restoration project, and he praised the community for helping by making donations to cover the cost of the work.

“We had some 40 donors who are interested in this historic cemetery, and they donated over $11,000,” Lorentzen said. “Our contract with Northern Bedrock was about $10,000, and we needed more to cover things like the campsites at Frontenac State Park for the volunteers and other incidental expenses. I want to do a shoutout to these private donors. We have so many local dedicated people.”