'This is a place to be honored': Volunteers working to restore forgotten cemetery in Waterford

NOW: ’This is a place to be honored’: Volunteers working to restore forgotten cemetery in Waterford

WATERFORD, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A group of volunteers in Racine County are working to give a forgotten cemetery the respect it deserves while learning deep history along the way.

What looks like an empty field just outside of downtown Waterford is actually a storybook of the small town's past.

The Old Settlers Cemetery on Riverside Drive is a 19th century burial ground that was mostly forgotten.

"A lot of people don't know it's a cemetery. People who live down this road don't even know it's a cemetery," said Judy Gambrel, the chairwoman of the Waterford Heritage Sites Committee.

The cemetery is believed to have been officially established in 1843, but the first burial was much earlier.

"1837 was Hiram Paige Barnes Jr. He was an infant that had passed away, and he was the first burial. He's buried over by the cedar trees," said Kristin Hannula, a genealogist.

Since the 19th century, the cemetery has been largely abandoned, with many of the tombstones buried, lost, or broken.

Genealogists and historians with Waterford's Heritage Sites Committee wanted to learn more about the obscure burial ground, and began doing research four years ago, with the restoration project truly beginning in 2021.

The village of Waterford and the state of Wisconsin both couldn't find any records about who was buried at the site, and it's possible records don't exist at all.

The volunteers that are working on the restoration project are doing much of the research work themselves to find family trees, combing through family records and obituaries.

They also had help from a professor who used ground penetrating radar to find potential burial sites. During that search, 76 probable gravesites were discovered.

With some digging, the team has found remnants of nearly two dozen tombstones, and there could be more nearby.

"I happen to know kids from Waterford who used to ride the stones down into the pond. So, we know there's stones there. It's privately owned, we're hoping the owner will at some point allow us to go down there and retrieve the stones, but we don't know how many there are," Gambrel said.

Once restored, all the existing tombstones that are in one piece will be cleaned and put back in place. Pieces of the broken tombstones will be embedded in a memorial wall, and new ones will be made. The group is also planning to get tombstones for the unidentified gravesites that read "unknown." The restored cemetery will also have new signage, and a special memorial gate.

The goal is to recreate what the cemetery was meant to be.

"This is a place to be honored and respected, not desecrated, and by putting up our signage and our memorial gate and the fence, we should let everybody know that rides by here, these are the pioneers that set this place up," said project manager, Robert Gariepy.

The project will likely take three to four years to complete.

The Heritage Sites Committee chairwoman, Judy Gambrel, chose to fund most of the project on her own. The committee is accepting donations towards the project and is hoping to receive some funding from the village by next year.

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