Preserving history one gravestone at a time
KEOSAUQUA, Jul 21, 2012 (Ottumwa Courier - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Through the help of volunteers across Iowa, anyone in the world can find pictures of their ancestors' gravestones without ever stepping foot into the state.
Ten years ago this month, the Iowa Gravestone Photo Project (IGPP) began when Rich Lowe, an Iowa GenWeb Project county coordinator, wanted to store his Van Buren County cemetery photos in a searchable database. There was no software available at the time that would do exactly what he wanted, so he asked his son, Jeff, a website programmer, to take a look at the project.
"To begin with, I felt it would be good to have a way to display gravestone pictures from this county. I had absolutely no idea where it would go from there," Lowe said.
Six months later, IowaGravestones.org was online. Soon other states were joining in, and in 2005 the "Gravestone Photo Project" software was established as an open-source project, and the programming code was placed in the public domain.
The true purpose of the photo project is two-fold. As time passes, headstones are rapidly deteriorating, and preservation of what history is left is vital.
In addition, the database makes it possible for anyone with a computer to access photos that volunteers have uploaded to the site. This can be a huge benefit to people outside the area who aren't able to visit Iowa's cemeteries in person.
Last year alone, 221,627 visits were registered at iowagravestones.org. These visitors made up 4 million individual page views throughout the site.
Deb Barker, county coordinator for Wapello and Davis counties, has seen the effects of gravestone deterioration firsthand and understands the importance these pictures have to family members.
"I have photos of stones that I took 10 years ago, and they were legible then," she said. "I went back two or three years ago, and they were all decayed. Whatever wasn't in the air then is there now. They're decaying 50 times faster than they have in the past."
This change in weather and the degradation of part of the history of our cities, counties and states make a photo record much more important than ever before.
"We have to capture stones as they are and put them on a database. It's the only way to preserve them," Barker said.
Joey Stark, who is the county coordinator for Jefferson County, has never set foot in Fairfield -- she's actually from western Wisconsin. She came across the IGPP a few years ago when she was tracing the genealogy of her husband's family. She took over Jefferson County from the previous coordinator to transcribe burial lists. And that's when the surprise came.
"I found a great-great-grandfather on my father's side that I didn't even know was in the area," she explained.
With the help of Richard Thompson, who takes the photos and uploads them to the site, Stark is able to be hundreds of miles away and still be close to the project.
She subscribes to the newspaper, receiving it about a week after publication, then has permission to put the obit online with information in the database and a link with photos of the gravestone if it's available.
The IGPP county coordinators, photographers and genealogists are all volunteers. Any time they spend helping with the project is given with their passion for history and preservation.
"We're paid in the information that is supplied. Having that new information there on the site, that's our payment," Stark said.
The other reward is the reaction from family members who are seeing their loved one's gravestone for the first time. Lowe says there is a post-em note feature on each picture's page that allows viewers to leave notes of interest. He said many of them are just to thank the person who took the picture and tell a story about how important seeing this stone really is.
The volunteer effort is what makes the IGPP as extensive as it is. In the project's first year, 1,562 records were added to the database. Compare that to 2012, when 127,000 new records were added in just those 12 months. There are now a total of 801,000 records accessible through the website, and nearly 5,000 individuals have contributed their personal photos.
"I assumed it would just be people like you and me, people who wanted to put their family's pictures in a database," Lowe said. "I had no idea there were people out there like Richard Thompson who would take a picture of every single gravestone in the cemetery."
Thompson, of Fairfield, first started posting photos on the Find A Grave website. His father is buried in Texas, and volunteers were putting together the 50,000 burial cemetery records. This volunteer effort was the first time he had been able to see that headstone, and that left a lasting impression.
He would go online and see what pictures were being requested in his area. Then he could grab his camera, take the necessary pictures and upload them to the site.
"That's where my value is," Thompson said. "I am literally on the grounds looking at the headstone for the information. I can find out if there is other family, take pictures and post them."
IGPP is unique in that so much of the work is done at the local level, by local residents who know the territory.
"Each of the 99 counties in Iowa has a coordinator, unlike other national sites," Lowe explained. "We have a county-level auditor, if you will, who moderates all of the incoming content."
Having that local-level experience and input has made all the difference in how the website has become the tool that it has.
"What's nice about (IGPP) is that we can preserve what the inscriptions were like," Thompson said. "What we've found here in Jefferson County is that a lot of people in the '60s and '70s started doing genealogy, writing down the inscriptions, names, dates, verses and emblems. A lot of times, the stones were pretty legible then."
But fast-forward to 2012, and many of those inscriptions aren't readable anymore. This highlights the importance of recording the information and history contained in these stones now.
For Thompson, the challenge is in making all of the information make sense. This means comparing the headstone inscriptions with public record at the library and the courthouse. In June, Thompson used one of Stark's lists of burials to walk three sections of the Memorial Lawn Cemetery in Fairfield. The list gave him names for three sections of the cemetery.
He then literally walked the cemetery, photographing more than 100 headstones and compiling their information, comparing them to the list they already had.
"What we found was that more and more obituaries don't have the burial listed because it's been deferred to a later time. Then we don't always know when and where the burial took place," he explained.
With so much territory in Iowa to cover, volunteers are also needed and welcomed. Anyone with access to a camera and the Internet can add their photos to the Iowa Gravestone Photo Project.
"I'd love to see folks take this project on. I'll walk a cemetery a summer. I'll take pictures as I go, update the transcription," Barker said. "I'd love to see every Wapello County gravestone, every Davis County gravestone online. With more participation, the moon's the limit," Barker said.
While there are few limitations to taking pictures and recording information in most cemeteries, Barker noted that anyone visiting a privately owned cemetery should ask permission before entering. Beyond that, local help can make a huge impact in the preservation process.
"They're here, and some are pretty deteriorated from the weather. Others have been vandalized, tipped over," Stark said. "We're preserving them digitally so we have a picture of what they were like so they're not lost."
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