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Sunday, January 2, 2011

20th CENTURY FOLK GRAVE MARKER

CHESTER ALLEN -- GRAVE MARKER
Some time ago, meandering out in the Appalachian plateau area, I came upon a small family graveyard. It was the first of many that I was to eventually discover over the next couple years. 

That day, I saw a grave marker made out of cement with a hand scrawled epitaph. I took a photo (shown above) as I had never  seen one made out of cement. It was definitely handmade -- not  commercial  -- and was the only  cement one in the back-country graveyard. There were other interesting grave markers but I didn't have my senses about me to take more photos. I really didn't have a strong idea then of what I was seeing. 

That graveyard exerience ignited a comversation. It was with Ann Johnson, a Kentucky State Historical Society expert on Kentucky graveyards. She gave me a great book recommendation titled, Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, by Terry G. Jordan. I bought it second-hand on Amazon and soon devoured his book --  and have since discovered others that offer material on folk graveyards and grave markers.

With Jordan's book I learned a few things about cement markers:
  • They fall into the folk category.
  • Commercial cement was adopted by rural southern folk to use for handmade markers in the early 1900s.
  •  Folks made molds in which to pour the cement -- waited until it was almost hard -- then they used a pointed instrument to scratch the epitaph into the cement
  • Commercially made markers eventually caused the decline of folk cement markers.


The markers seem to last. I figure that Chester Allen's  is about 93 years old. His epitaph is short and simple:

Chester Allen
Born
June 31 ????
Died Oct 11, 1918

Perhaps if you  find a cement marker someday, while walking in a graveyard, you might be left with the thoughts of a low-income family that cared enough to construct a marker for their loved one as stone cutter's markers were expensive during the early twentieth century. Their alternative choice would have been a plain rock marker.

24 comments:

  1. Interesting!!! In the Spring or summer I plan to visit the grave of my multi-great Uncle Nathaniel. A veteran of the American Revolution (as was his father and most of his brothers), he was the first white man in Knox County, Ohio and founded what came to be known as the New Jersey settlements and was known as the Axe-man to the Native Americans because he was a blacksmith and made tools for them. And yes, there will be pictures.

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  2. Barbara what an interesting find. I've always loved to visit old cemeteries but I haven't run across this type of grave marker yet. Definitely gonna keep my eyes open next time.

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  3. Kay -- Wow, are you fortunate to have all the history of your multi-great Uncle Nathaniel. My maternal ancestors come form Ohio and I have some history on them, but not much. Funny, I too have been planning a summer trip to where most of them were settled at one time. I want to do some hands-on research.

    I really look forward to your post or posts about your trip and what you find and of course photos.

    -- barbara

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  4. Mama-Bug -- Thanks for stopping by. As I have come to understand old graveyards better, the more fascinated I have become with the cultural tales they have to tell us. -- barbara

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  5. Nice post, Barbara, I've seen a few markers like that around here.

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  6. Vicki -- Terry Jordan refers to the cement markers being found in the southern states. When I lived out west and in Michigan I never came across any. Perhaps it is just a southern thing. Thanks for the comment -- barbara.

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  7. I love this intriguing post, especially since I have always loved cemeteries (truly, since I was a little kid of 4 or 5), especially the old ones ~ not in a morbid way, but for their peaceful, contemplative, and historically interesting qualities, as well as the fact they're often located in such beautiful spots. I've seen some interesting gravestones in my many visits to graveyards large and small, new and old, foreign and domestic, but this one is really something special! I've never seen anything like it. It's certainly holding up very well, weathering the years (and weather!) in great shape. (Makes you wonder why more gravestones aren't made of concrete!)

    But it's that backward "S" and "June 31st" date that really get me - how poignant the are! It almost seems that a child did the inscription.

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  8. Laloofah -- In the early twenties we still had folks that signed with an X. I'm sure you will recall that our country, at one time, felt that if you made it through the 8th grade it was like graduating from college today.

    In the Texas Graveyards book he has a photo of a cement tombstone from the same era as the one I have posted. The handwriting is childlike on it too.

    This tombstone represents why graveyards can tell us so much about the local culture -- literacy, economics of area, rituals, etc. Graveyards, in most cases, hold our cultural history unchanged.
    Yes, the backward S and the June 31st highlight the literacy aspect.

    Wonderful reasons on how you view graveyards. I find the older graveyards with their mature landscaping can be very peaceful places to walk. I know many folks that take their walks in graveyards. They claim that it is very contemplative.

    Thanks for the comments -- barbara

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  9. Southerners were inventive when it came to cement. Remember Faulkener's 'As I Lay Dying'? They used cement to set a leg.

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  10. I remember Faulkner's book but I don't remember the cement leg part. It has been a long time since I read it. Maybe I will have to put it on my reread list. I do have such a list as many great books were read by me so long ago. I need to jog my brain a bit to remember all that happened in them.

    Anyway, your comment made me laugh. Thanks -- barbara

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  11. Wow, interesting find. I've never seen anything like that. Thanks for sharing your information.

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  12. Amazing marker! I don't believe I've seen many in the folk category. Wonderful piece of Americana.

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  13. barefootheart -- And thank you for stopping by with your comment. Welcome to the new year -- looking forward to your 2011 posts -- barbara

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  14. Tess -- It was an amazing marker and of the kind that one discovers only occasionally. I have found another in a small church graveyard -- very similar to this one. Looking forward to your wonderful posts in 2011.

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  15. This is so interesting. I visit a lot of old graveyards--it seems that history speaks clearly in those places. I don't think I've seen a concrete stone, although I have seen several stones with lettering that was obviously cut by someone in the family--crudely but lovingly done.

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  16. Mama Zen -- I feel such an artifact is truly personal -- barbara

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  17. Granny Sue -- I frequently see the old header and foot stones of plain rock. I have not seen stones/rocks with lettering hand cut. Something to look for. thanks for stopping by -- I enjoy your blog. -- barbara

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  18. I have seen simliar markers around our area. I love reading them when visiting old cemeteries. They are really places full of history.

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  19. Birdman -- Thanks for your comment -- it is relevant and to the point -- great! -- barbara

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  20. Farmchick -- Like Jordan said in his book -- it seems to be a southern thing. Perhaps that is why Vicki, you and I have seen them -- barbara

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  21. So, would this be found in a cementery? (Sorry, bad joke.)
    But seriously, I find it very touching and so much more personal than the machine-made markers.

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  22. Christine -- I am sure one would find the idea of making a grave marker out of cement and then hand scrawling the name etc, on it as unusual. In this area and many parts of the south it is not unusual. One, is that the family could be isolated and secondly poor. But being true to the burial customs of the area, felt the need to place a grave marker on the grave. These cement markers are not easily found but with a little back country investigation you can usually come up with one. I think they are truly symbols of love. Thanks for stopping by -- barbara

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