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Douglas County Historical Society and volunteers restore gravestones at Nelson cemetery

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.

Youth volunteer sprays gravestone
A youth volunteer named Riley sprays a gravestone at Fahlun Lutheran Church outside Nelson on Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Contributed photo by Brittany Johnson
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NELSON — Armed with natural fiber brushes and an environmentally safe cleaning solution, 10 volunteers and staff from the historical society — 15 in all — ventured into Fahlun Lutheran Church Cemetery outside Nelson at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 11 and cleaned at least 20 headstones covered in dirt, moss and other grime built up over time.

We're just trying to preserve the history of these people so people can remember them
Liz Paul

"It was fantastic. Beyond all of our expectations," said Liz Paul, volunteer coordinator at Douglas County Historical Society , when asked how the first cemetery clean-up went.

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A mother and her children work together to clean a headstone full of moss at Fahlun Luthern Church Cemetery outside Nelson on Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Contributed photo by Brittany Johnson

"People that didn't know each other just worked so well in teams to get things done," added Paul. "As far as cleaning headstones, I mean, we had some amazing results. It was just amazing."

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Toothbrushes were used to remove the grime from the hard-to-reach grooved carvings on the headstones at Fahlun Luthern Church Cemetery on Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Contributed photo by Brittany Johnson

The volunteers, whose ages ranged from 5 to those in their 70s, worked diligently for three hours using "gentle but firm motions" to remove debris and microbes from Fahlun Luthern Church Cemetery headstones with large natural fiber Tampico brushes so as to not harm the granite grave markers and soft fiber toothbrushes for detailing the stone's carvings.

"Bleach and metal wire brushes are one of the worst things you can do to a stone and should be avoided," said Douglas County Historical Society Director Brittany Johnson.

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Paul said while some stones were easy to clean, others were harder, but the non-toxic D/2 Biological Solution developed by conservators — used at historical sites such as the Smithsonian, the U.S. Capital and Civil War cemeteries — removes the debris while also protecting the stone from future dirt and grime.

"It'll keep working now even that we're gone. Every time it rains, it will reactivate that cleaner and keep working to inhibit that biological growth," said Paul.

The solution worked so well that it revealed names and details in the stone long lost by the covering of lichens and microbes.

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A before and after photo shows the successful results the volunteers and staff from the Douglas County Historical Society accomplished during the three-hour cemetery clean-up on Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Contributed photo by Brittany Johnson

"Quite a few times, I saw people stopping and looking at the stones, saying, 'I had no idea that was even under there,'" said Johnson.

Johnson said she was "astounded" by the before and after results.

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Two young volunteers work together to remove microbes from a headstone at Fahlun Luthern Cemetery on Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Contributed photo by Brittany Johnson

"We're just trying to preserve the history of these people so people can remember them," said Paul.

Gravestones were damaged at Ebenezer Cemetery outside of Leaf Valley during the early morning hours of Thursday, Sept. 23. A driver became airborne after jumping the approach next to the cemetery and crashed into the headstones.

"It was just a really great experience overall," said Johnson. "We helped history and this cemetery; people were chatting and working alongside others they had just met."

While another cemetery clean-up has yet to be scheduled, those interested can sign up to volunteer by contacting the Douglas County Historical Society at 320-762-0382.

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The historical society is accepting donations for cleaning supplies for future restorations. The June 11 project used $300 worth of supplies. Those interested in donating can give money in person or mail it to Douglas County Historical Society at 1219 Nokomis Street, Alexandria, MN 56308.

While some of the stones were only knocked over, most were also broken.

You can also learn more about cemetery repair, cleaning and restoration by attending the free 48State Tour Cemetery Workshop at Kinkead Cemetery on Tuesday, July 5, at 9 a.m. 48State Tour! is an organization that puts on 48 gravestone preservation workshops, in 48 states, in 48 days. They select one location in each state of the continental U.S. to teach the community how to clean, repair and reset gravestones and monuments. This year, Johnson reached out to the group in hopes they would select Alexandria for the Minnesota stop, and they accepted.

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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