On a day in the late spring, Carol Dooley drove back and forth along Etowah River in Dawson County, looking for any signs of an old road.
She knew that a driveway was once along this stretch of road, and that according to records, the house it once led to was still up on a hill somewhere in the surrounding trees. And somewhere on that property, there would be graves that she needed to find.
After driving back and forth for quite awhile, Dooley finally asked for help from a nearby neighbor that pointed her towards an overgrown dirt path that would be almost invisible to those who didn’t already know it was there.
After parking her car and walking up the hill through the overgrown weeds and grass Dooley discovered the house, an abandoned white building, and a path that led around the property to a clearing and what she had been searching for: an old cemetery full of marked and unmarked gravestones.
“I had no idea where it was, so I found a little dirt road by this old abandoned house and said to myself, ‘okay let’s go back there’,” Dooley said. “So I kind of walked back a little ways and then there it was.”
The cemetery was the Palmour-McClure cemetery, one of many similar family gravesites documented in “Cemeteries of Dawson County”, a book written by the Dawson County Historical and Genealogical Society.
Dooley, president of the Dawson County Historical Society and self-proclaimed genealogy enthusiast, was there with the permission of a descendent of Solomon Palmour, a Revolutionary War soldier who is buried in the cemetery, to see the cemetery and to see about cleaning the gravestone.
Throughout the past several years, Dooley and her partner Pat Floyd, another member of the historical society, have put a great deal of effort into locating, cleaning and taking photos of some of Dawson County’s oldest gravestones, many of which are unknown to the general public.
Dooley said that she first got interested in genealogy and cemeteries because of her mother-in-law, who was always interested in the family tree and in taking care of her own ancestors’ gravestones at Salem United Methodist Church.
“My mother-in-law loved her family and her heritage and her church, and she had all of these old documents and old pictures,” Dooley said. “So I got my love for history and for caretaking of the graveyards and so on from her.”
Dooley very quickly got into genealogy and researching her family heritage, and soon after she learned how to clean and preserve gravestones.
“I saw somebody posted on Facebook that they were having a workshop in Virginia on gravestone cleaning and repair,” Dooley said. “I went and I was totally bit, done, had the bug at that point. My husband’s great grandfather’s stone was the first one I cleaned, and it’s just been a progression since then.”
Dooley has since been to more than half a dozen gravestone cleaning and repair workshops, and has learned about different types of tombstones and how to effectively clean them.
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But there is much more to the genealogy and gravestone cleaning process than meets the eye, according to Dooley.
“First we have to locate the grave, and Pat knows a lot about that,” Dooley said. “Once we find the grave we have to get permission from a descendent to clean the grave; you have to have that before you can even visit some of these ones on private property.”
When Dooley locates a grave or cemetery, she takes photos to upload to Find-a-Grave, a website that allows anyone to search a database of cemetery records. Most of the time, there is a record of the grave or graves in the cemetery book, and Floyd is able to assist Dooley with the history of the person the gravestone commemorates.
When it comes to cleaning the gravestone, Dooley operates solely under “do no harm” methods.
“A lot of things aren’t safe for the stones, like people say you can color on a stone with chalk to see the inscription and that does work, but the chalk can also harm the stone,” Dooley said. “The way that I have been trained and learned how to do this is the do no harm method, so do no harm to the stone, do no harm to me and do no harm to the grass and ground around the stone.”
The biggest difference in the do no harm method as opposed to other methods of cleaning the stones is that they take longer to show results rather than being an immediately like-new stone.
“A lot of people want pressure washing or sand blasting, which is bad for the stone but gives you that instant like-new look immediately,” Dooley said. “When I clean the stone for you it may or may not become nice and clean right away, but the biocide that I use works over time so it makes a really big difference more slowly.”
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To start cleaning a gravestone, Dooley first thoroughly wets the stone with water. Then she uses a plastic scraper to remove any lichen or growth from the outside of the stone.
“You always want to use softer plastic scrapers instead of metal scrapers or else it can scrape the outer layer of the stone away,” Dooley said. “With these plastic ones it wears away the top of the scraper instead of the stone.”
Dooley then uses a soft bristle brush to scrub the stone with Orvus, a gentle soap that removes the dirt and grime from the outside of the stone. She uses a toothbrush or a bamboo skewer to loosen any buildup that may be inside of the letters on the stone.
She then wets the stone again to remove the soap and dirt residue before applying D/2, a biocide that works to destroy any growth on the stone while not harming the stone itself.
“A lot of times lichen or moss will grow down into the stone, so the D/2 gets down in there to destroy it from the roots,” Dooley said. “And it’s great because every time it rains it reactivates it, so it just keeps working more and more over time.”
Dooley takes before and after photos of every stone she cleans, and says that a lot of times she’ll return days or weeks later to the stones she has cleaned to see how the biocide has worked in her absence. Since her very first gravestone she cleaned, Dooley estimates she has cleaned around 50 stones.
Dooley’s goal, along with the rest of those who use the do no harm method of cleaning stones, is to preserve the stones, and thus to better honor the memory of those the stones commemorate.
“What we do isn’t as much to restore the stone to like new, but to preserve and to have a legible inscription on the stone,” Dooley said. “And honor the person the stone is for.”