GREENFIELD — Looking out over the mismatched headstones at Caldwell Cemetery, Marciann McClarnon couldn’t help but smile.
This place, sitting on a little hillside overlooking the hustle and bustle of Old National Road, is usually empty. Saturday, with the souls of dozens of Hancock County pioneers buried below the ground, the cemetery was filled with life, as crowds of visitors came to celebrate local history.
Leaders of the Hancock County Cemetery Commission invited community members into one of the county’s oldest pioneer cemeteries for the organization’s inaugural Day of Caring.
The event turned the old cemetery into a living history museum, complete with actors dressed in period costume who told the tales of those buried below. At the same time, the gathering gave the nearly 100 visitors who stopped by throughout the day a chance to lend a hand with ongoing clean-up and preservation efforts at the burial ground.
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Pioneer cemeteries are those that were established before 1850. There are more than 90 in Hancock County. They can be found behind farmhouses, in clumps of trees, near churches or in fields. McClarnon cautioned visitors that Caldwell Cemetery was one of nicer, more visible, pioneer cemeteries in the area. Many more have fallen into disrepair, and the commission has limited financial resources to devote to restoration, she said.
She hopes that getting more people involved in the effort will make the task of repairing and preserving the plots a bit easier, she said.
Since McClarnon took over as the commission’s leader in April, she’s pushed for more community members – from government leaders on down – to take an active role in preserving the plots of the land where the county’s ancestors were laid to rest.
She plans to host a Day of Caring in a different pioneer cemetery each year to educate residents on the county history housed within each graveyard while giving them an up-close look at what it takes to preserve that history.
Local historians and preservation experts were on hand at Caldwell Cemetery Saturday to answer questions from visitors, and seven actors positioned themselves around the site to recite scripts of facts given to them by cemetery commission members, who spent weeks prior to the event researching the biographies of those buried there.
Wesley Olin, 11, dressed as Liberty Trees, a Hancock County native who lived in the early 1900s.
Trees was an inventor-turned-poet, Wesley told onlookers, as he sat on an old work bucket, wearing a conductor’s cap on his head with bright red suspenders draped over his shoulders.
Trees invented the first electric car in 1906. But after his eyesight waned, he turned to writing as a creative outlet. Wesley read visitors a selection of Trees’ poetry, offered them a piece of candy as Trees would have done in his workshop, and smiled as he watched them walk to the next site.
Youngsters who came to the cemetery with their families said hearing from the re-enactors was the highlight of the visit. But they also enjoyed a chance to get up close and personal with the headstones that normally would come with a “hands off” warning.
Brothers Christian and Teddy Hanna dashed around the old headstones Saturday morning, each with a spray bottle of water in one hand and a bristle brush in the other.
They stopped sporadically at the old headstones, doused the dirtiest markers in water and used the brushes to rub them clean — simple restoration techniques taught to them by cemetery commission members.
They’d never been in an old cemetery before, the boys said. But they were certainly enjoying this visit.
Teddy, 7, said hearing what the young actors had to say taught him a lot about local history. Christian, 9, agreed, and added that he found cleaning the old headstones to be a fun task and a promising career choice.
“Maybe I can get a job here someday,” he remarked.