Bette Keene Scavone’s family helped build Columbia.
Generations of her family built St. Clair Hall at Columbia College, one of the walls of Jesse Hall at MU, and even the Chancellor’s Residence on the Francis Quadrangle. But times change and Columbia has grown. Many of those family members are buried in a family plot right in front of a plant that manufactures Oscar Mayer hot dogs.
Many small family cemeteries across mid-Missouri age and decay until their memories and monuments are lost or nearly forgotten. No one comes back to visit or preserve the resting place. But some guardian angels are working to reverse the process, to preserve a time gone by contained in the confines of these tombs.
It’s hard for Scavone to go anywhere in Columbia without feeling a personal connection to her surroundings. She said the Keenes came to Columbia from Kentucky in the early 1800s to farm and practice their bricklaying trade.
Once Scavone discovered where her family left their mark, she said she would go to the buildings to touch the same bricks laid by her forefathers.
Scavone feels her family history come alive when she goes to the gravesites of her ancestors. She will often sit and tell the graves the stories she had heard about them as a little girl that had been passed down to her from her mother or grandmother, just a tidbit here and there, a quick snippet of information.
But here’s the problem: Her family’s remains are scattered throughout Boone County. She’s visited all the sites she can find to document their graves, but it’s getting harder to find these sites. There are currently about 172,000 people living in Boone County, a far cry from the 20,000 people who lived there in 1860. All those people require homes and businesses, which require land. Ultimately, that means that some family plots have been built over.
Those plots can also end up surrounded by urban sprawl. In one case in Cole County, a developer moved a family graveyard to build a roundabout. In the case of Scavone’s great-great-great-grandfather’s sister, Sarah Keene Henry, the family plot is now next to the Oscar Mayer plant on Waco Road in Columbia.
David Sapp is the president of the historic preservation group Boone’s Lick Road Association. He said the plant workers upkeep and maintain the cemetery’s landscaping, but the stones still fall away under the pressure of time.
Sapp said preserving those small family cemeteries is important to help people dig into their family history.
“Nowadays we’re all buried in large cemeteries or we might even be cremated and we don’t even leave any markers behind,” he said.
“This gives us all an idea of what our past practices were, when we were more rural, when we lived on farms, we might have been buried in a church cemetery or a family cemetery,” Sapp said.
There are approximately more than 270 different burial sites across Boone County, he said. Of those, 50 have vanished.
“They’re gone,” Sapp said. “You can go to the site now and I could show you evidence from the documents that there was a cemetery there, but you can’t find it, you can’t see it, it’s gone.”
Another 150 of these cemeteries are endangered. Sapp said they might be out in a field somewhere or along a fence with weeds and trees growing up around them, and no one is left to take care of them.
“They’re very much in danger of becoming extinct,” he said.
David Snyder, the owner of Jacob’s Ladder Cemetery Restoration Specialists, said the upkeep problem stems from families moving away from land. The burial plots left behind often become hidden over time, covered by brush and located in the back of properties, making them harder to find once they are forgotten.
Some property owners aren’t always aware there is a family cemetery on their land, Snyder said. But he and other mid-Missouri cemetery conservationists have noticed an encouraging trend for the future of these burial grounds.
Mary Helen Allen, a member of the Genealogical Society of Boone County and Central Missouri, is currently writing a book about some of the historic and family cemeteries in Boone County. She said more and more people are wanting to know about their familial history and are looking to cemeteries to help.
“People are trying to discover who their ancestors are. So, this is part of all that. And we have Find A Grave now and people are getting out there, photographing where their people are buried.”
Find A Grave is a popular genealogical website that allows people to search for grave records.
Randy Dent found out about his own family’s nearly lost cemetery at his grandfather’s funeral. His cousin told him about the cemetery located outside Kirksville.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew that somebody had to do something with it because it wasn’t going to survive another hundred years,” Dent said.
Animal activity and the growth of several large trees had begun to severely damage the cemetery. Dent feared that if the trees continued to grow, the cemetery would be completely destroyed.
Dent lives in Jefferson City and makes the two and a half hour drive to work on the cemetery. He’s currently trying to restore the burial ground.
“It’s just something I felt like I needed to do cause I didn’t know if anybody else was gonna do it to be honest with you,” he said.
Dent said that because of this decision, he’s been able to discover more and more about his ancestry. He’s still trying to figure out who is who and what his relation is to those buried there, how they are all connected. He said he wants to preserve his family’s history.
“My goal is to try and get it cleaned up and get a fence put back around it so that will stand another 100 years,” Dent said. “And try to get something put in place where it’s maintained throughout the year, at least three times a year, so that it’s just cleaned up and taken care of and ensure it lasts a long time, at least while I’m alive.”
He’s removed the trees that were causing issues, cleared away leaves and other debris that had piled up, and mowed down the weeds and grass around the site.
Dent said that he reached out to Snyder to help. They’re now working on cleaning and restoring the stones that became visible after they cleared away all the brush, he said. They uncovered six individual gravestones in the process.
“The challenge will be putting something in place to make sure it is maintained into the future,” Dent said.
Snyder has worked to restore many cemeteries across mid-Missouri. He said that for him and his family, it’s a labor of love. They find the process and its end result extremely rewarding, and he said he often gets a sense of good will while he works.
Snyder said the gravestones he works with are often in disrepair, sometimes even shattered, and that they mix a special type of epoxy to ‘glue’ them back together.
He said one of his favorite restorations he has worked on is the McHargue Cemetery outside of Salisbury, Missouri. The site holds about four families and was started around the 1860s. The descendants of one family had both the funds and the will to restore it fully, he said. They were able to take a smattering of gravestones across the hilltop where it is located and transform the site into a proper burial place.
Snyder said it is important to maintain and restore these final resting places both because of the history they hold and as a sign of respect for those who came before us.