DANVILLE — Tawne Hedges spends a lot of time in cemeteries, or as she calls them, “outdoor museums.” She and husband, Erik, have a mowing business that maintains several cemeteries in southwestern Vermilion County. She also feels like it is her calling.
That’s why the couple has started a not-for-profit corporation to restore tombstones at cemeteries throughout the area. To get things started on that project, a number of raffles have been planned. The first drawing will be April 26.
Two mowers will be given away in that first raffle. One is a big 52-inch zero turn riding model by Scag, and another is a Toro Walk Behind.
“We had thought about doing restoration as a business, but we soon realized that most cemeteries just don’t have the money available to cover the full cost of repairing and setting stones upright,” Hedges said. “So we’re thinking of ways to generate more money to help get the job done, and keep from losing more of the history of these past generations.”
In graveyards across the country, some of the old stones are victims of time and the elements, while others have been damaged by vandals.
This new enterprise, Hedges Stone Restoration, is quickly approaching the 200-stone repair mark in the oldest section of Mount Vernon Cemetery west of Catlin. Erik Hedges said they have dug up some stones that were completely covered and several inches underground.
“Until we started searching and digging, we actually thought that the graves were unmarked. Finding a stone that deep means that it may have been missing for decades or even a century,” he said.
During the project at Mount Vernon, they’ve put stones back up for veterans of various wars, children and families.
Each stone seems to have its own story to tell. The most bittersweet moment for the Hedgeses and their team members thus far was finding an old stone that was bottom-side up in the ground. It contained the names of five children of one family.
“I still get emotional when I think about that one,” worker Johnny Bryant said, tears coming to his eyes. “We were happy to get that one back up, so they weren’t forgotten, but to think about that family and their great loss just breaks your heart.”
That feeling resonates with all the restoration crew.
“Sometimes you just feel like these people from the past are your family,” Tawne Hedges said.
Her father-in-law, Allen Hedges, a retired auto dealer, said he enjoys helping with the project because he has always loved history, and “you can learn a lot out here” just by reading the stones.
At a restored government-issue headstone for a Civil War veteran from the 12th Illinois Infantry, there seemed to be a sudden stillness in the air on that windy day. The workers realized it was 150 years ago that week when he and his fellow soldiers were fighting one of the bloodiest encounters of the Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh.
Looking for the burial site for a Mexican War veteran, Erik and Tawne said they will search cemetery records. Perhaps his marker is one of the almost unreadable weathered stones, or it may be a few inches underground, waiting to be located.
Before starting their restoration service, the HSR team was trained and certified by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
“We wanted to do this right,” Tawne said. “Working in cemeteries is in my genes, I guess.” Her grandfather, Herb Warren, is mentioned on a plaque at an Armstrong cemetery for his work and contributions there.
This current raffle is the first in a series of fundraisers planned by the group. A cemetery tour is in the works, along with more raffles throughout the year.
Raffle tickets are being sold: $50 for a big mower and $25 for a Toro mower. The first drawing will be April 26.
Tickets are available at the Spring Hill Cemetery office and Fagen Auto Parts in Danville, or by calling 427-5837.
For more information about cemetery restoration, groups and individuals may contact Tawne and Erik Hedges at 427-5837 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.