As cicadas hum and trucks roar past, two figures move about 19th-century gravestones set into a little glade surrounded by farm fields just off Highway 30 and Skillman Road in rural Mount Vernon.
Gail Brown and her grandson, Dylan Kwaiser-Brown, both of Mount Vernon, take GPS readings on each of the tombstones, jotting down notes, calling out instructions or readings and conferring with each other as they struggle to identify the markings on the stones.
Skillman Cemetery, whose entryway is unremarkable except for a single, white wooden cross, is one of many the two have documented as Brown researches Iowa pioneer cemeteries using mapping software and GPS in order to identify and help preserve the tiny, historic sites.
Brown, coordinator faculty of the Geographic Information System program at Kirkwood Community College, has received a Kirkwood Endowed Chair for 2011-12 to pursue the research.
Brown has been working on pioneer cemeteries in Linn County, often with her Kirkwood students, for more than two years. Pioneer cemeteries are defined by the State Association for the Preservation of Iowa Cemeteries as cemeteries with 12 or fewer burials in the past 50 years.
“You know how people have a eureka moment? Well this thing is different. It’s been simmering, while I gather information,” said Brown, who has a master’s degree in GIS from Pennsylvania State University.
This is Kwaiser-Brown’s first summer working for his grandmother on the cemetery project. Kwaiser-Brown, 16, enjoys driving to the out-of-the-way sites, while Brown navigates. He also likes reading about the different people interred in the cemeteries, especially those from World War I.
“When my grandmother first introduced me to it, it seemed kind of crazy but sounded like fun,” Kwaiser-Brown said. “The only thing that I don’t like is walking a quarter of a mile in grass up to our waists, and worrying about the ticks,” he said laughing.
As Brown, who took a workshop on cemetery restoration, captures information about the cemeteries, she shares it freely with genealogy and historic preservationists. She is interested in finding a way to make the information more easily and freely accessible.
According to Brown, there are hundreds of pioneer cemeteries in Iowa, and the old headstones are literally disintegrating or sinking into the ground. Without intervention, Brown said this part of history may soon be lost to preservationists, archivists and genealogists alike.
Rich Lowe of Keosauqua is the project coordinator of the Iowa Gravestone Project, which is an effort to digitally preserve Iowa gravestones and the writing upon them via photographs. The project has more than 400,000 images.
Lowe is also the Van Buren County coordinator of the IAGenWeb Project. Lowe said that Brown has documented and photographed a number of Iowa pioneer cemeteries.
“As decades pass many gravestones are deteriorating and even disappearing due to time, floods, tornados and even vandalism,” Lowe said. “By archiving these images digitally, we pay honor to our ancestors and help save these important records … as well as providing family history researchers a tool for exchanging info with other researchers with common ancestry.”
When the academic year is completed, Brown will have GIS data on every cemetery she’s worked on. Every stone that can be read will be listed in its correct order, row by row.
Using mapping software allows Brown and other researchers to gain greater insight into the lives of the pioneers. Once the data has been entered, researchers can see how far away headstones are from rivers or look at clusters of stones from the same time period.
“You see patterns in the stones where one family will have lost five kids. Historically, what happened? Was it TB? Cholera?” Brown said.
Originally, Brown thought she could do three counties in a year.
Van Buren County, where she’s currently focusing her efforts, has more than 70 pioneer cemeteries. Many of them are unmarked.
For now she’s focusing on cemeteries she can see from the road. After the leaves drop in the fall, she’ll be back to do the others within the county.
Looking ahead to Lee and Des Moines counties, Brown muses that she would like to get a grant to complete those as well.
“If we don’t grab this data, it’s gone. Stones are face down, fallen over. Some that we can read now, we won’t be able to read later. Counties just don’t have the resources to restore every cemetery,” Brown said.