Podcast Episode 26: Rural Cemetery Research with the Berks County Association for Graveyard Preservation

Discover genealogy tips and tricks for family historians researching rural cemeteries and finding ancestors buried in small family plots in this podcast episode featuring Lara Thomas of the Berks County Association for Graveyard Preservation.

Podcast Episode 26: Rural Cemetery Research with the Berks County Association for Graveyard Preservation

As we trace our ancestors back in time we often hit a brick walls with our earliest ancestors. They were often buried in plots with just a few family members, and these tiny cemeteries can be hard to find. Berks County Association for Graveyard Preservation gives us some tips on how to research these rural cemeteries.

In this episode, Denys Allen interviews Lara Thomas of Berks County Association for Graveyard Preservation, BCAGP.  Lara shares the work of BCAGP, tips to find your ancestors in these tiny cemeteries, and how to keep these graveyard preserved for the future.

If you want to see visuals of some of the work of BCAGP, check out the video on the PA Ancestors YouTube Channel.

Watch on YouTube


02:14 About BCAGP

03:54 Preservation Efforts

06:26 Founders of BCAGP and cataloging of graves

11:25 Other groups and preservation efforts

17:36 Care of gravestones

21:39 Supporting BCAGP

For more help on family history research in cemeteries, see these other podcast episodes and blog posts:

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Episode Transcript

Denys Allen: When we first start doing the research of our ancestors and cemeteries, we think of them at a graveyard laid out in neat little rows with everyone clearly marked and the headstones intact and upright.

And often when we go back and earlier in time, we get tripped up and run into brick walls because our ancestors aren't next to churches and aren't laid out into neat rows with everybody marked.

So clearly.

They were often buried in family plots , on the family property with just a few family members close together.

These small plots can be hard to locate, uh, especially in rural areas and maybe even modern life kind of made those places disappear.

This is Denys Allen with your Pennsylvania ancestors. And in this episode, I hope I can help you get inspired to go visit that cemetery over the holidays. In this time of COVID, it's a safe thing that we can do and really experience our ancestors. I interviewed Lara Thomas with the Berks County association for graveyard preservation.

Her group works with these tiny cemeteries, these rural places with just those few headstones and it works to catalog and preserve those for future generations. I hope this episode gives you some information on how to find your ancestors, some tips on preservation and inspires you to connect with the history of your ancestors through their gravestones.

Lara Thomas, welcome to the podcast. I'm excited that you're here because as genealogists, we're always trying to find the cemeteries of our ancestors and you are a part of an organization that helps preserve the cemeteries for people. so can you tell us a little bit about like, how you got started and what your role is in BCAGP?

Lara Thomas: The Berks County Association for Graveyard Preservation is a 501C3. We're a nonprofit organization. we don't necessarily have a headquarters because it's, we're all volunteers we tend to usually meet in. Well with COVID we're meeting the meeting underneath the pavilion in Oley, but, a good portion of our time spent together is preserving historic burial grounds that have either been abandoned orphaned or, we have a few that, are, they've been dissolved church graveyards for, for, if you think of it that way. Either the church dissolved long ago and there no other parent organization that's taking care of it nor family members or anyone else that can keep an eye on it.

So we try. but there are at last count, over 300 cemeteries that meet that category in Berks County alone.

Denys Allen: Oh wow.

Lara Thomas: Our organization usually runs about 15 members and then we had a lot of volunteers. So obviously we can't hit all of those. We hit on a semi-regular basis or keep an eye on approximately a hundred to 120 of those. And when I say, keep an eye on or maintain, that might mean we get to the cemetery once every year. One to three years and we go through, we keep, we look at the structural integrity. We look at what impact might be coming up on it in terms of where the property is located. What's the access, what are the rights of access? Is, does it have its own deed? Has that changed?

And then we also look at the actual cemetery itself. A lot of the small historic, private cemeteries than most people can picture in their mind. They're driving down a highway or driving on a back road and they see that one tiny little plot in the middle of a farmer's field, usually surrounded by Stonewall and if not a Stonewall, a couple of trees. And you're like, what the heck is that up there? Yeah, that's somebody cemetery that existed usually, especially in Brooks County because the, the people that were settling. We're doing so and needed a place to bury their family and the churches weren't established yet Berks County was formed out of Philadelphia County, as many of your genealogists, probably know. And we are one of the older counties. We do have, you know, a lot of people that have deeds that go all the way back to the Penns and, that makes things interesting, but it also means that a lot of those cemeteries have now been orphaned.

Times weren't always the way they are now. You know, there were times where farmers needed every square inch, so they picked up the tombstones and if we're lucky they put them in the barn. If we're not lucky, there's no record of them. We just know from somebody saying, well, my grandfather said there used to be a cemetery somewhere out there. There's no way that we can, we can work on that beyond that, but we have about a hundred, hundred and 20 that do have, monuments, either a Memorial or an actual gravestone still there that we try to keep an eye on.

We tried to maintain any border walls that are established if we can. And let me tell you, that's a big part of where our money goes because it's extremely expensive to try to keep, stone and mortar wall that is anywhere from 100 to almost 300 years old in working condition. When it's in the middle of a housing development and it's in the middle of a farmer's field when it has a pipeline that wants to go nearby. We've been very lucky because the organization reaches out. We've been able to work with a lot of the major utility companies and get them to either go around or work with us. And we've even had donations from some, which is awesome, but a big part of our work is trying to keep them from getting any worse off.

I'll be honest. I'd think I'm the young, well, I know I am the youngest board member. And, there, there aren't a whole lot of other younger members either. So it it's a physical challenge sometimes. Unfortunately, you know, people don't often don't appreciate some of that stuff until we get a little bit later in life, but we do what we can.

Denys Allen: Yeah. So who were the angels? I mean, who started this organization. I mean, cause really it's unlikely they had a direct. Person that they knew that was buried in one of these plots.

Lara Thomas: You know, actually it was, that's how it actually started Jackie 1980's and it really nineties, as well as Laurel Miller were two Berks County residents that had a passion and an interest in genealogy. And Jackie was working on tracking down nine ancestors. there's some related to Berta let's so your ancestry people out there and genealogists probably recognize those names, especially in Pennsylvania and this part of Pennsylvania, we have a lot of, French Huguenots. So we get the Berlitz and things like that in, and she was doing research and trying to track them down.

There were some books out there. nothing recent. There was a book. I think written in the thirties that was briefly published. It's only about 30 years old, 30 pages long. And it mentioned a few and that was enough to get people's interest started and Jackie got together. And once she realized and started to find some nine graves, she was a woman with a mission. She made it, her life's work. She got together with Laurel and a couple of other ladies, got the organization started officially in 1994.

Even before it was official as of 1992, they put together a book that functions is our handbook. It's called Epitaphs. It's no longer in print, but some of your, your readers and members probably have heard of it. And it is a record that of every private cemetery and historic cemetery that they could find and get access to access is another issue. Some of the folks from the area might remember the, that even made media that, small private cemetery had the land around it bought and the new homeowner was refusing access to family members not that long ago. I'm not going to name names cause it gets not nice. Right. and that's always a, a challenge.

We work and educate people on the laws that have been passed, especially in 1994 act protecting historic cemeteries. We have members who, are very good at researching the deeds and going back the provenance and working with the planetary and the department of wills and all kinds of stuff to make sure that the cemeteries that are there, we know when we can get at them, how we can get at them. We find out who owns the property around them now, because obviously we want a good relationship with them. And for the most part, that people are great. You know, they, they see that cemetery it's more than what they can handle and they don't want to see it get worse either.

We actually have a young gentlemen, just recently, no relationship to historic German settlers in the area. And he bought the house and found out that part of his yard bordered and was surrounding a small historic cemetery. He reached out to us. He's like, this looks awful. I'm trying to keep it mowed and keeps it decent, but I need help. And he reached out to us and we've gone out and we're going to do some training, show people how to rebuild a field, Stonewall, a drywall, and we're going to try to clean up the tombstones and get it. So at least he could get in there with a regular push mower. If he needs to.

So when Jackie, when Jackie passed, a good portion of her, her estate created a trust, that's the Nein trust. And, we are, grateful beneficiaries of funds that come through there. If it weren't for them, we couldn't do a lot of what we do. It can cost anywhere from $10,000 - $40,000 to fix up one of these walls. And if we don't fix the wall, then we worry about what happens to the stones. There needs to be something that protects them so that the elements and people don't just, you know, trample right over it. we do have a stone Mason on our board who is active and he helps us with all of that and does some work with helping us, get stones put back in place properly. Anybody that's ever gone by a cemetery has certainly seen tombstones, especially aged ones that are tipping that are broken. so we also to work on that, we tried to get stones reset. We tried to fix broken ones.

There's one private cemetery in Maiden Creek area where unfortunately teenagers went through and destroyed all the stones, just, you know, pick them up and threw them and smash them into pieces. And our board members and some volunteers spent, I think it was over a year and a half, putting them back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Hm, and, and trying to find as many pieces as possible and had them reset and special, almost museum quality boxes, so that at least they're together and preserved. And if someone needs to go and find them, you know, they can look at them and they are readable for the most part, but we can't get some of that back.

Denys Allen: Yeah. Yeah. I I'm completely stunned and amazed at the amount of work that you're, I think. I didn't realize the scope when you said 300 of these independent cemeteries and it makes sense.

Yeah. Cause there wasn't a church established, the minister traveled people needed to be buried. People, burned their families together. and. I'm really wondering, do you know of any other organizations similar to yours and the adjoining counties like in Lancaster or your honor?

Lara Thomas: We know of some family associations sometimes, Hottentein isn't is a name that probably especially Berks County people are familiar with. The Hottentein family, you know, has their own private organization and trust that they try to take care of their private cemetery. The Rieber has family members and, and distant family members that support and do they work at fundraising and then pass those funds on to us so that we can use the stone basin and do work on theirs, Keim, is another one that comes to mind one that's just in its infancy and getting started and was kind of got its attention because of the modern issues with warehouses is the Kemp in Maxatawny Township. we're lucky enough that we've gotten some media attention. We're lucky enough that there are some family members and residents in the area that have found out that there is, intent or interest in putting a warehouse that would cause the entire private cemetery to have to be picked up and moved, because it's a historic cemetery and it is registered it requires court action to be able to do that. And they they've gotten, they've gotten pretty far with that because you have to be able to prove that there aren't family members, well, you got to ask first to when a lot of people don't realize that this is what could be happening with small private cemeteries. So we've been working with local people, family members, descendants of the camp, and trying to get some attention to this, you know, so that we know for a fact that there is. One revolutionary war veteran there. And one of the other things we've been doing is tracing the genealogy and helping family members and other genealogists determine who else is there?

The cemetery itself, for example, the camp goes back to about 1730. It was started by a German who came here and his son, that was the first child born here in the Americas is known because it's George Kemp. he was a captain in the revolutionary army. He was also appointed a Squire. In other words, he was an Esquire in those days. It was the closest thing to a justice of a peace and a judge all wrapped up in one because there were no people that were graduated as lawyers. The Kemp's inter married with all a love of the big names in that part of the County. and what led to Kutztown and the founding of Kutzstown University, the, the park in Kutzstown, everything, you know, that you can think of, you know, all the ways that things fall back together, you know?

Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that's so cool. And if people wanted to follow the status of that case, what do you recommend? The Reading Eagle newspaper?

The Reading Eagle hasbeen very kind to us and we've gotten some attention that way. Let me find their Facebook page. They have a Facebook group and we're trying to get people together. to help support each other and, and,

Denys Allen: okay, great. That in the show notes, because you never know where people ended up, you know? Yeah.

Lara Thomas: Cause I'd have to go and dig for it real quick. Sorry.

German families had 10, 12 kids. Yeah. You know, later on, obviously some of them moved out of the state.

And I think in some degrees, we're lucky the genealogy is a little easier for us, in this area because the Germans or anal, they like to keep records. A lot of the traveling passengers kept good records, which helps a lot too.

Here we go. The Facebook group is Maxatawny Warehouses at Hottenstein Road next to any warehouses at Hartenstein road. That's one of the ones that's, that's, following to, to try to help preserve the camp and the area around it.

Denys Allen: Okay, great.

Lara Thomas: But yeah, if it weren't for that, and that's part of what we do too, we go and we search out pastoral records. We search out family wills and we try to build provenance for the cemeteries so that their support for what we believe is buried there. We're very lucky that Jackie nine and Laura Miller did that book in 92.

92 90, 94, 92. And then there was another one prior that they did that wasn't quite as big and they did a transcription of every cemetery they could get to. That's a lot. That's a lot of transcription. It's a lot. Yeah. And that book, you said it's out of print, but if people wanted to see what was in their epitaph, Appetite tasks by Jackie nine, Laurel Miller.

Denys Allen: Okay. you don't have a copy for sale on your website or something.

Lara Thomas: I wish, but it has it's out of print and we didn't hold the copyright.

Denys Allen: Oh, okay.

Lara Thomas: But if you come talk to us, we're happy to loan people pages or, or, you know, we're a small organization. Come ask us, we'll let you borrow it. Take a look.

I've already taken, you know, it's a little snippets of each cemetery to family members as they need it. because it is so old. We are discovering errors at ourselves every now and then, there was. And acceptance of dousing that not everyone might not find acceptable. If you're not familiar with dousing, it is a folk tradition that is followed by people, even looking for a water to drill a well, but it can also be used to locate a grave or to locate the boundaries of a cemetery.

That doesn't exactly hold up in court, you know, when it comes to determining how many people are buried in a cemetery.

Denys Allen: Right. But yeah, I love it. so I hate to ask this question, but do you have any idea how many, cemeteries might've been lost and w. Like you said, like maybe plowed over in the farmer field ...

Lara Thomas: Over 100

Denys Allen: Oh, Oh. Before the organization formed?

Lara Thomas: Oh yeah. Because even when they went around in the nineties, there were quite a few that it was just word of mouth and leave and we have that recorded, you know, if anybody reaches out to us and has a family name, we can cross reference it with the ones that we're aware of. And we can also tell you whether or not if there's any monuments still standing, or any memorials that, that still exists.

We constantly fight the environment as well as, the human condition and preserving the stones that do exist. We stay up to date and in fact, two of us, the one vice-president and myself, Carla Humble and I went to a presentation in Newark Delaware with a world renowned preservationist and conservationist, Jonathan Apelle. And he's actually the gentleman that did work on the Knight's tomb in colonial Jamestown. Well, they brought him into rehabilitate that tombstone, which had been had action taken to it over 300 years. And he basically reassembled the pieces and help conserve and preserve it.

And so we went to a workshop of his, so that what we do, even for the small cemeteries in our area, we try to stay on top of it to the best of our abilities. What are, what materials are acceptable, what materials aren't going to harm the stones further.

For example, we have a biocide that we can use that helps remove lichens and Moss without damaging the stone, you know, different things that we can do for stuff like that. And anytime people ask, we're happy to offer advice, you know, sometimes you can love the cemetery too much. Don't go weed trimming in it every week, you know, right up against the stone trimmers are really hazardous those old delicate stones. Don't use, Roundup and other chemical agents to try to kill the weeds around your stone. These stones are so old and stones are a natural material, their poorest, whether we believe it or not, and they suck up all the chemicals out of the soil and it causes a stone spring party even more, you know, so there's just lots of little tips that we can give people to help, you know, things like that.

Denys Allen: Those are great tips. Those are really great tips. In terms of tips. What tips do you have for genealogists that are trying to navigate their way, maybe through some of these old cemeteries, because everyone's desperate to find that record of death, you know, in the 17 hundreds or early 18 hundreds.

Lara Thomas: If you're lucky enough to find a will, a lot of times they do mention private cemeteries. and, and then being, set aside to, to my, my, my descendants and shall be maintained, blah, blah, blah. And that gives you a clue to go looking for one Just before this zoom call, Carla and I were looking at an 1872 map of Berks County, working on proving or disproving, the theory of whether or not a private cemetery was located on a particular farm. with some, we had somebody word of mouth saying there was, but if we go back to these maps, a lot of times we can see the small private cemeteries because they had, did have value back then. even, even in the 1840s, the 1870s, they were accepted and usual practice to bury people in small private cemetery.

So they made it onto the atlases and maps, which is a big help if you're doing research. And you think that that's a possibility, don't be afraid to pull out the maps. And start looking, especially, if your ancestor might've been in a rural area, cause that's a big help.

That's a great idea because there weren't names for all the roads.

Denys Allen: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. And borders have changed. Right. You know, what, what is Berks County now and what is North Hampton County now? And Lehigh County, those lines have shifted a lot. Yeah, there's a lot of small churches and private cemeteries that at one point were Berks County that are now Lehigh or North Hampton and vice versa. So that happens too.

Yeah. Yeah. So I have to ask how can people support your work? Cause there's people listening to this podcast from all over the United States and I'm sure people and people who can trace their ancestors back to Berks County and want to know that someone's taking care of that resting place for them.

And then it's not going to go away. So when they get here in five years, I hope it's not five years so we can travel again. But, you know, whenever they, whenever they get back here to visit and actually see, you know, their, their past here in Pennsylvania , but people want to support your work. So how do they get in touch with you? What can they do to support you and what you do?

Lara Thomas: We have our own website. if you enter bcagp.org, and there is a great tool, even for anyone that's doing research, as well as who wants to support us. We have a listing of a lot of our cemeteries directly accessible through there. We have pictures that we've taken upgrades in the various cemeteries.

We also have newsletters that we issue quarterly. To save costs and this is the modern age we currently issued two quarters that are as an E edition and two quarters that go out and print as well as E edition. And you can access any of our past newsletters, which share articles on work that we've been doing or cemeteries that we've discovered or cemeteries that we're working on restoring.

And there is also, an index in archive there so that you can try to search for the ones that you might need. We're also on Facebook. you can follow and see the work we did just last weekend. We were out, we took two cemeteries that we thought were going to be in reasonably good shape, but due to COVID, we've lost a lot of our volunteers.

For example, Day of Caring, normally takes place in the spring. And a local high school. FFA is very supportive and they usually lend us anywhere between 20 and 40 teenagers who are skilled with using weed trimmers and access, if necessary and all sorts of good stuff. And they come out and we get 20 cemeteries done in one day.

That makes a huge difference for us. We didn't have that this year. So we're behind the gun. If you're in the area and you're physically interested in helping us let us know we are taking COVID progressions. So we're taking, making sure we're spread out and not having as many people come to any of our workdays, but if you're physically able, we encourage it.

We also encourage people to adopt a cemetery. If you find that you are related to some of the people in there. we have helped people get even just loose groupings together of support. We just did that with one recently, new homeowners didn't realize that the cemetery didn't have anybody and she, by the time she was done talking with us, I think she's had at least eight houses.

That we're ready to band together to help take care of that cemetery that will make some big difference for us. It really does wonderful through being stewards of that little piece of history that they have. You know, it's just this little tiny sliver and maybe I'll do some research in genealogy on this.

You can become a member, our fees. Aren't great. Yeah, they're very small. Please know, contributions. Obviously your tax deductible, we are happy to accept monetary deductions, but we don't, you know, physical deductible, physical health helps too. that's what makes a big difference.

Denys Allen: Well, I, I really hope people do do reach out and they follow your work on Facebook. They join as a member, you know, come out if they're local and we'd whack and . Be those eyeballs on the stones and make sure everybody's well taken care of in the past. We don't want to forget those folks.

Lara Thomas: Yep. bcagp.org. It's going to have links to lots of good stuff. It'll have the newsletters, it'll have names of a lot of the cemeteries that we have records on and it also has contact information for myself as well as the other officers and the board, and reach us by email or phone. And we're happy to give you, share with you what we have.

Denys Allen: Well, thank you, Lara Thomas for being on the podcast and sharing all the great preservation efforts going on here in Berks County. I, I really appreciate it.

Lara Thomas: We appreciate you helping spread the word.

Denys Allen: Thank you again to Lara Thomas for filling us in on how to preserve these headstones, how to find them. And I hope this gave you some tips and resources to do your research, especially those early ancestors in the rural counties of Pennsylvania.

The work of BCAGP is so worthwhile. And I hope you find , an organization like that in the counties where you're doing your research, or at least those historical and genealogical societies, which could have information on your ancestors

in this time of COVID. And especially with the holidays , visiting a cemetery, uh, especially these tiny rural ones, or even the ones that churches like the one I'm standing at right now , could be a way for you to, you know, do that , genealogy research and also just kind of get out of the house, get some sunshine , and enjoy some connection to the past.

Make sure you check out, my other episodes. Uh, to help your research and , give me a subscribe , like a follow. So you don't miss the next episodes. In next week's episode , we'll do urban cemeteries with Mount Moriah cemetery, the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania, and that one's located in Philadelphia. I wish you many discoveries of your Pennsylvania ancestors.

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