John Walters prepares the base to reset a stone at the Lanier family plot in Springdale Cemetery. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
John Walters prepares the base to reset a stone at the Lanier family plot in Springdale Cemetery. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
The headstones in the Lanier family plot at Springdale Cemetery will look almost new after this week, thanks to $5,000 from the Lanier Mansion Foundation for restoration work.

The restoration was approved by the Springdale Cemetery Association’s board of trustees, board president Peter Woodburn said.

Graveyard Groomer of Connersville began work Monday to clean, repair and restore the stones in the plot, which is on the north edge of the cemetery near the George Grey Barnard statue, “Let There be Light.”

Cleaning requires a solution of ammonia and water, along with hand-held drills fitted with circular nylon brushes that quickly – but gently – remove the decades of dirt, grime and pollution that has settled on the marble stones.

John Walters said his crew never uses wire brushes for the work; wire can damage the surface and also can break off into small pieces into porous stone, causing rust stains.

Walters said in five years or so, the stones can be cleaned again, but the task will be much easier, requiring only the ammonia solution and a soft brush to remove dirt.

Walters said he will be restoring the damaged sandstone sarcophagus that marks the grave of John James Lanier this week.

The sandstone work requires even more delicate cleaning techniques, but first Walters said he will restore the top piece, which was broken and crudely repaired years ago.

“We don’t repair the stones, we restore them,” he said, adding that most of the restoration is done on site. “We travel with everything it takes to put them back together. We have epoxies that are formulated just for stone-to-stone bonding, and mortars that are made specifically for” limestone, marble or sandstone – the softer stones used for early markers.

For the top of the sarcophagus, Walters said he will use a specially formulated mortar, using crushed slate or sandstone to match the mortar to the natural colors in the stone and help disguise the restoration work.

(As a side note to the curious, the sarcophagus is empty. “The bodies are still buried underground,” Walters said, when asked. “The sarcophagus is just a style of marker.”)

Three other sarcophagus-style markers in the plot will be restored next year, he added.

Originally employed the Fayette County road crew, Walters said he became interested in cemetery restoration after being assigned to mow the county’s cemeteries.

“I’d lived around that area all my life and I didn’t know where some of those little old cemeteries were,” he admitted. “Within a couple weeks, I was in love with them. I’m a sculptor and an artist, and I’d find all these stone carvings that are just laying there and I’d think that’s such a shame.”

He convinced the county council to hire him full time to restore broken headstones and also take care of mowing and other maintenance at the cemeteries.

He taught himself the trade and eventually started his business 20 years ago.

With few companies doing this type of work, Graveyard Groomer is busy.

“We travel all over the Midwest,” Walters said, adding that most of his business comes from referrals. “I’ve never had to advertise. I’ve never went out and asked anyone else if I could fix their tombstones. ... I’m booked until I retire, and all my clients tell me I can’t retire.”

Woodburn said Walters’ expertise also will be called upon to help the cemetery association prioritize future restoration projects.

“There are 25,000 to 30,000 people buried here, but you won’t see that many grave markers,” said Wayne Kyle, who also works with the cemetery association. “They fall over and sink into the ground and then get covered over. (Restoration of such a large cemetery is) a daunting task, but it’s not unique to Springdale.”

“It’s a century-old situation,” Walters said. “A quarter-inch of dirt can bury something and put it out of sight again. And once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.”

Walters said the main priorities would be to fix stones that appear to be in “a critical lean,” where the marker appears ready to fall over or break.

“If it falls into a neighbor beside it, then you might have two or three stones that are in danger,” he said.

The other top priority would be to secure the tall obelisk-shaped makers, which over time may become loosened from their bases and also be in danger of toppling over.

Broken tablet stones that have been somehow separated from their grave sites would be a lower priority, unless they can be returned to their original locations, he said.