Stone by stone, Kramer preserves cemeteries
By Jean Caspers-Simmet
Date Modified: 06/14/2012 2:55 PM
ORCHARD, Iowa —Jim Kramer preserves Mitchell County history stone by stone.
Kramer works at an Orchard repair shop by day, but for the past 15 years, he's found time to repair nearly 800 cemetery stones in Orchard and Stillwater cemeteries in Mitchell County and Beckwith Cemetery in Floyd County.
He's renovated stones in the cemetery where his family is buried, in Johnsburg, Minn., and helps with gravestone repairs at the Meroa Cemetery.
At times, he's had to use a five-tine fork to search for pieces of stone that have settled into the soil.
"A couple stones were in six to eight pieces, and I had to glue them back together," Kramer said.
When he worked at Stillwater Cemetery, many stones had been vandalized and never repaired. Some were laid on top of graves and, over time, became covered with dirt. In one spot, he found seven buried stones, all from one family plot.
An elderly woman told him her baby brother was buried in a corner of Stillwater Cemetery, but no stone existed. Kramer built a small cross from treated wood and set it in a cement base to mark the grave. He also built and engraved a wood cross to identify the grave of Carl Jeene, 11, who drowned in the Cedar River in 1921. The child's parents were migrant workers who weeded sugar beets and lacked money for a burial.
A tiny lone stone sits at the bottom of a hill in Orchard Cemetery. It is said to be the grave of a baby who died in a stage coach that passed by.
"There's a lot of history here," said Kramer's wife, Marjean.
How it began
Kramer and Marjean have taken care of the Orchard Cemetery since 1994. Phil Lack of the Orchard Cemetery board asked Kramer if he could repair gravestones.
Kramer started the project 15 years ago after attending a workshop on fixing stones at the state cemetery convention in Charles City. Kramer got the name of an East Coast firm that sells the glue he uses for repairs. The glue costs $135 for a gallon of powder.
Kramer, who learned to do cement work from his father, built wood forms to make the cement pads for the grave stones.
Stillwater Cemetery took up a collection to pay for materials and labor to repair the aging gravestones. Beckwith Cemetery, by Colwell, also collected money to pay for Kramer's work.
"It's heavy, hard work," Kramer said.
Counties provide a little funding for township cemeteries, but it barely covers mowing.
"I think it's a good use of our tax dollars to take care of our cemeteries," Kramer said.
He trims and weeds at Orchard Cemetery, and Marjean does the mowing. They like to get their work finished by the Friday before Memorial Day, when people bring flowers. Kramer assists the American Legion in putting up the 40 flags to honor deceased veterans.
"We get a lot of good comments about how nice the cemetery looks," Marjean said.
Kramer said that the old lime rock stones, many dating to the 19th century, often have lettering down to the bottom of the stone. As the stones settled, some of the words were covered by soil.
"When I set those stones in the cement pads, I'm careful not too go to deep so that I cover up lettering," Kramer said.
He takes some stones home to repair. He once took all the stones from a family plot. When relatives from another state stopped by to visit the graves, they thought someone had stolen the stones. Another relative visited after Kramer put the stones back, took pictures and sent them to the relatives.
"They wrote a nice letter telling me all about this and complimenting the work that I did," Kramer said. "I had no idea they had been worried about the stones."