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'48 State Tour' helps restore vandalized gravestones at Alexandria's Kinkead Cemetery

The Douglas County Historical Society reached out to 48 State Tour after vandals ruined gravesites last summer.

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Allison Moore, 8, of Maple Grove, uses a nylon detail brush to scrub away build-up on a gravestone at Kinkead Cemetery in Alexandria on Tuesday, July 5, 2022.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA — 60 volunteers from Fargo to Mankato, including representatives from five Minnesota historical societies took part in a free cemetery restoration and cleaning workshop at Kinkead Cemetery on Tuesday, July 5.

The event was run by the CEO of Atlas Preservation and creator of 48 State Tour, Jonathan Appell, 61, of Southington, Conn.

48 State Tour began in 2020 with a mission to teach 48 communities across 48 states in 48 days how to properly take care of cemeteries while leading them in hands-on cleaning and repair demonstrations.

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A debris-covered Kinkead Cemetery gravestone is sprayed with the non-toxic D/2 Biological Solution.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

The workshops are free to the communities as they are sponsored by Appell's company, Atlas Preservation, which sells American-made products for restoration, conservation, and construction.

"It's partially altruistic and part adventure — traveling all over the country — and it's also to promote our company," said Appell when asked why he began the endeavor.

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Appell started the workshop with an introduction to the history and geology of headstones and then focused on the issues of damage and vandalism at Kinkead specifically followed by a cleaning demonstration with the non-toxic D/2 Biological Solution developed by conservators, which removes the debris while also protecting the stone from future dirt and grime.

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A Kinkead Cemetery gravestone is legible again after applying the non-toxic D/2 Biological Solution followed by a soft-bristled scrubbing and water rinse.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Appell says in his over 20 years as a specialist in historic gravestones and monuments, plus 15 prior years as a monument installer, he has seen see a lot of "really bad things" being done that are detrimental to the stone such as placing them into a puddle of concrete and cleaning them with "aggressive chemicals."

After the demo, volunteers scattered throughout the cemetery, armed with the solution and soft-bristled brushes, to do their cleaning on weathered headstones. Later in the afternoon, fractured tablets were re-joined, a fallen monument was risen and leaning stones were straightened.

"The goal is to do representative repairs of the most common conditions that people encounter," said Appell.

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Jonathan Appell kneels next to a broken gravestone during his intro lecture for a crowd of cleaning volunteers at Kinkead Cemetery in Alexandria on Tuesday, July 5.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

According to Appell, there are many reasons why stone repair and cleaning are necessary, including to pay respect to those who came before us, but the main reason for him is safety. He said large leaning stones have fallen on top of people, resulting in injury and sometimes, death.

Alexandria is the 33rd stop for Appell this summer. After the tour, he said he will be working on a monument of Francis Scott Key — who wrote the Star Spangled Banner — among others.

Douglas County Historical Society Director Brittany Johnson reached out to the organization to visit Alexandria as its Minnesota stop for the 2022 season. Johnson said she began looking into groups to host cemetery repair workshops after vandals damaged 20 headstones at Kinkead last October, sparking community interest in preserving local cemeteries.

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For three hours, the Douglas County Historical Society staff and 10 volunteers worked diligently to remove dirt and moss from headstones. Some of the graves date back to the late 19th century.

"Douglas County has more than 50 small cemeteries and burial sites," said Johnson. "People want to take care of these things, but they want to know the best way how to do it."

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Johnson said she counted 60 volunteers in attendance at Tuesday's workshop with some coming from as far east as Mankato and as far west as Fargo. She said 60 to 70 headstones —"maybe more" — were cleaned and/or repaired following the 48 State Tour workshop.

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Volunteers work side by side to clean headstones at Kinkead Cemetery on Tuesday, July 5.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

"He (Appell) did say this is one of his best-attended workshops. And I'm really proud of that for Douglas County," said Johnson. "It does show, in our rural areas, we are taking care of our history."

When asked, Apple said, "the historical society did a fabulous job. So yes, this is definitely one of the biggest turnouts so far."

Johnson said the oldest stones date back to the mid-1860s and 70s with some of the deceased born in the late 1700s.

Among the volunteers were four other representatives from historical societies across the state — Otter Tail, Grant and Pope counties and the Maplewood area.

Pope County Historical Society Director Merlin Peterson attended the workshop to learn more about the cleaning and repair process of headstones in preparation for the Northern Bedrock historic preservation workshop in August — co-hosted by Pope and Douglas County Historical Societies.

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Pope County Historical Society Director Merlin Peterson applies D/2 Biological Solution to a Kinkead Cemetery gravestone on Tuesday, July 5.
Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Kinkead is the second Douglas County cemetery to receive volunteer cleaning this summer with the help of the Douglas County Historical Society. Johnson said with two cemeteries in the books, she would like to add three more before the winter season.

Those interested in donating for future cemetery work can give money in person or mail it to Douglas County Historical Society at 1219 Nokomis Street, Alexandria, MN 56308.

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Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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