Headstones at Slater cemetery receive makeovers as locals team up to clean them

·3 min read
Barb Mallon feels a historic headstone that's recently been cleaned of dirt and lichen at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater. It's part of a larger project to clean and straighten the stones at the cemetery.
Barb Mallon feels a historic headstone that's recently been cleaned of dirt and lichen at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater. It's part of a larger project to clean and straighten the stones at the cemetery.

When Dennis Mitchell discovered that his in-laws’ headstone was sinking, it triggered a monumental project at Bethlehem Cemetery at the southeast edge of Slater.

“That’s happened a lot down here. We have a lot of sinking going on,” said Barb Mallon, one of the church members who leads the committee to clean, lift and straighten the headstones at Bethlehem Cemetery.

Mitchell’s brother-in-law contacted a contractor to raise and level the stone, which got the group thinking about taking care of the other stones that were showing the wear and tear of Iowa’s weather.

With 50 headstones cleaned and straightened so far, this summer the group hopes to add a couple dozen more to the list.

Dennis Michell points out parts of Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater, where more than 50 headstones have been cleaned and straightened.
Dennis Michell points out parts of Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater, where more than 50 headstones have been cleaned and straightened.

“Our cemetery committee has been working with a contractor to repair, raise and level headstones as a trusted duty to those who have been buried there,” Mallon said. “The congregation and the church council have diligently funded the contractor expenses while volunteers have given their time and labor to the cleaning, landscaping and research projects.”

Mallon, Mitchell and Joan Schoon spearhead the project and are being joined this summer by local Boy Scouts.

“One of the Boy Scouts, Zach Horness, is doing an Eagle Scout project, so he will be leading a group of other Scouts and show them how to clean the headstones,” Schoon said.

Barb Mallon, Joan Schoon and Dennis Mitchell inspect the progress of the project to clean and repair headstones at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater.
Barb Mallon, Joan Schoon and Dennis Mitchell inspect the progress of the project to clean and repair headstones at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater.

“We don’t know exactly when the cemetery was started but we have some 1880s stones. Slater was founded in 1889, but pioneers were here before the town was founded,” Schoon said.

The cemetery, which is located on Highway 210 on the east edge of Slater, has 230 plots and about 200 of them have headstones.

“We had some old stones that were covered with dirt and we had to dig them out,” Mallon said. “We have two Civil War soldiers, and we have some that are dated 1880. One is a young girl and she had two siblings — so that family lost three little kids.”

Some of the stones need to be reset as they’ve sunk into the ground over the decades. Some need to be cleaned of dirt and lichen.

Lichen covers part of a historic headstone at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater. Some of the cemeteries stones date back to the 1800s and a group from the church is working to clean and straighten the stones.
Lichen covers part of a historic headstone at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater. Some of the cemeteries stones date back to the 1800s and a group from the church is working to clean and straighten the stones.

“Some of the older stones are so soft the cleaning can make them harder to read,” she said. “We also have some that were covered by plants, and that vegetation had to be cleared away.”

The cemetery belongs to Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Slater. “Anyone can be buried here. We have non-members buried here,” Mitchell said.

The contractor for the job is Russ Gardner, who’s a member of the State Association for the Preservation of Iowa Cemeteries.

The cemetery committee applied for a grant from SAPIC and was awarded $500.

“That’s really helpful because one of the cleaning products that we use cost $350 for about four gallons,” Mallon said. “It’s expensive to do, but you can’t use any other product. You can’t just bring out dish soap because it will destroy the limestone.”

The group is working on a couple dozen more stones this summer and will get help from the local Boy Scouts troop.

More: Forgotten in time, 172-year-old pioneer cemetery gets new keeper with Ames annexation

Barb Mallon shows a broken headstone at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater. Years of Iowa weather caused damage to the historic stone.
Barb Mallon shows a broken headstone at Bethlehem Lutheran Church Cemetery in Slater. Years of Iowa weather caused damage to the historic stone.

To help pay expenses, members of the congregation “adopted” a stone for whom no family could be found, Mallon said. By adopting, they donated money to the cost and then received a packet of history about that person.

“Its history goes back to the late 1800’s when pioneers would settle for a bit, often burying a mother, or too many times, children who died from diseases we no longer worry about,” she said. “Cleaning the stones to read the names and then researching the families is very rewarding, although very time consuming. Having the congregation get involved promotes more interest in the history of the community too.”

This article originally appeared on Ames Tribune: Time has taken a toll on the headstones at Slater's Bethlehem cemetery