Local volunteer hopes to see improvements at historic cemetery
ELKINS — A local Welcome Center volunteer hopes to see improvements this year to many fallen gravestones at a local historic cemetery, particularly those lying near the final resting place of the city’s founders.
Elaine Valentine, who volunteers at the Elkins Depot Welcome Center, said she has reached out to local officials out of concerns that many old gravestones in Maplewood Cemetery have fallen down and need repairs. Valentine said she hopes that later this year, after the winter weather ends, stones can be repaired in instances where family members are unable to pay for the needed work.
She noted many tombstones — more than 30 — have fallen over at the hill where founders Stephen B. Elkins and Henry Gassaway Davis and their family members are buried. Valentine said she often tells visitors about the town’s history, and she wonders what people would think if they saw all the stones lying in disarray.
“It’s just so sad when you go out there,” Valentine said. “We’re trying to get people to come to Elkins, yet we treat our founding fathers’ graves with no respect, and it’s so sad.”
She added the town literally would not exist without the efforts of Elkins and Davis, wealthy politicians and businessmen who founded Elkins in 1890 and developed it as a railroad town. Elkins became friends with the Davis family and married Davis’s daughter Hallie in 1875. The men each served as United States senators, and they had a lasting impact on Randolph County and many other parts of the country.
“If it weren’t for those two guys, we wouldn’t be here. Elkins wouldn’t be here,” Valentine said.
She added that she understands the cemetery is privately owned and it is the responsibility of family members to pay for grave upkeep and repairs. However, she said she reached out to city and county officials over the past several months to see if something can be done in instances where surviving relatives can’t be found or simply can’t afford the cost of fixing overturned stones.
She said her family paid nearly $400 a few years ago to have a relative’s gravestone repaired through the cemetery, since her husband was not allowed to do the work himself, per cemetery policy.
“Not a lot of people would have that much money and be willing to do that for our ancestors,” she said.
The owner of the historic cemetery is James Frymyer, who operates it with his wife, Carol. He estimated eight to 10 stones were restored by families in the past year.
James Frymyer said the cost to repair a stone is 95 cents per square inch, and depending on the size, costs can add up to a few hundred dollars or more for properly repairing one stone.
“I used to put a bunch of them in out of my pocket,” he said, but he can’t afford to do that anymore, particularly with rising costs of cement and materials as well as people choosing cremations more often than traditional burials.
However, Frymyer said he’s willing to work with families and people interested in preserving gravestones.
“If they’re willing to help get the stones up, I’m willing to help … up to an extent,” he said, noting there is a lot of work and cost involved in properly fixing a headstone that has cracked and fallen over. It’s his policy to perform the work himself because it’s a complicated process that needs to be done by someone who has experience.
“We’re doing our part. … There’s just too many of them (that) fell over,” he said, adding that’s a common problem in all historic cemeteries.
Over time, many factors can lead to stones falling over, including roots, ground freezing/thawing, deteriorating materials, etc.
It’s not as simple as propping the stone back up once it has fallen, James Frymyer noted. The gravestone must have a base at least 18 inches in the ground, which many older stones lack. He said some of the older gravestones might have a base with loose bricks that have crumbled over time, or no base at all. Underground rocks, roots and soil conditions can make creating a proper base even more challenging.
In addition to setting a new foundation, he said the process of resetting a stone also involves carefully using cement and other materials to fill in any cracks and then setting the stone back on top of the base. Cleaning the stone also might be required.
The cemetery includes about 88 acres, and it is located along U.S. 219 just north of Elkins in the Leadsville area near Highland Park.
Valentine said she would be thrilled to see a community group form, possibly to organize fundraisers that could pay for repairs in the historic cemetery.
One of the local elected officials Valentine reached out to about her concerns was Randolph County Commissioner Mike Taylor, who also said he’d be interested in seeing a community group or committee form to seek funding.
“It would be a worthwhile effort, absolutely,” Taylor said.
However, he noted public funding could not be used in this case, since there are several private graveyards in the area and it would not be fair to single one out.
Elkins Mayor Van Broughton also said he would be interested in seeing some type of community group or committee formed, possibly to obtain grant funding for restoring gravestones in the historic cemetery.
“It would be nice to get something done,” Broughton said, noting he is eager to work with the cemetery owner, local community members and families this spring.
Another possible source of help could come from Davis & Elkins College, which was established through the efforts and influence of Davis and Elkins. The college is named in their honor, and the school’s athletic teams are known as The Senators.
“If there are opportunities for our students to get involved … it sounds like a good idea,” said Chris A. Wood, president of D&E College. “I love the idea of students helping out with a project that involves honoring the town’s founding fathers. If we have a role to play, we’re happy to play it.”