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Volunteers help maintain Va. parkway cemeteries

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Local,Virginia

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY, NEAR MILE MARKER 142, Va. (AP) — The epitaph on Mellawalka Wilson's tombstone got the story half right.

"Gone But Not Forgotten."

Judging by the tangle of weeds and rotten chestnut fence rails in this small graveyard, she has most certainly been forgotten. Mellawalka Wilson (whose real name was "Milwaukee," according to family records), her husband and as many as four of her babies lie here in this lonely, unkept cemetery next to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd County.

"You realize what a hard life these people had," said Heidi Ketler, as she pulled weeds away from the headstones of two nameless infants — twins who were probably stillborn. The inscription on each grave marker read: "Infant Child of Jonas and Mellawalka Wilson, August 7, 1921."

"I mean, can you imagine what it must have been like for this family?" Ketler said.

Ketler was part of a small band of volunteers who set out, on a recent morning, to bring a little bit of love and attention to the Wilsons and other long-gone souls whose bodies sleep forever and unnoticed near the parkway. Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Roanoke-based nonprofit that provides volunteer muscle for parkway projects, has taken on the task of maintaining parkway graveyards in Virginia, which include 19 cemeteries near Roanoke.

The Adopt-A-Cemetery program is part of a larger National Park Service effort to take care of nearly 100 cemeteries near the parkway in both Virginia and North Carolina. Some of the graveyards are still maintained by families whose ancestors are buried in them. In other cases, such as the Wilson Cemetery in Floyd County, family members moved away or there are no surviving descendants left to tend the graves.

That's where the volunteers step in. Groups that adopt a cemetery take care of mowing, weeding and easy maintenance.

"It's all about respecting people who were there," said Steven Kidd, cultural resources specialist for the parkway.

Kidd said that the park service first tries to find family members to maintain the cemeteries, many of which have broken tombstones or are overgrown with weeds and small trees.

From the time the parkway was constructed in the 1930s until final work took place in the 1980s, architects and engineers tried to weave the 469-mile scenic road around graveyards. Some of the plots are on parkway property, but families are granted access to the cemeteries.

"Some passers-by see the cemeteries that are shabby-looking and they think that we don't care, but we do," Kidd said. "It's our responsibility to do what we can to reach out to any surviving members of a family to partner with and get the cemeteries back in decent shape. If they can come out once a year or once every five years, that's fine. We're there to help."

The parkway has a minimal budget and few employees to maintain the cemeteries on park property, which is why people such as Ketler and the husband-and-wife team of Drew and Iris Daniels pitched in to help.

On a warm June morning, the three worked in the Wilson Cemetery near mile marker 142. With the help of parkway maintenance staff, Drew Daniels replaced a dozen broken fence rails with salvaged chestnut posts. Ketler pulled weeds and even some small oak saplings that grew among tombstones that included those of two other Wilson children, Everett and Hettie, who died five years after the twins.

Drew and Iris Daniels joined Friends several years ago, when they volunteered to take care of clean-up work on the overlooks at Pine Spur, Devil's Backbone and Rakes Mill. In February, they participated in a training class to learn more about cemetery maintenance. They also learned how to do pencil-and-paper rubbings on tombstones that have been worn down by the elements, a method that reveals lost names and dates that can inspire further genealogical research.

They have helped locate lost cemeteries that were not mapped, although the heat, foliage and pests of summer have made that a task to be continued during cooler months.

"We're having trouble locating some graveyards because there are no tombstones," Iris Daniels said. "We'll go back in the fall, because it's too snakey now!"

She said she hopes that cooler weather will also encourage greater participation in the Adopt-A-Cemetery program. Only a handful of trained volunteers have turned out for the workdays so far.

The old graveyards hold innumerable stories. Kidd, the parkway's cultural specialist, said that yellow fever epidemics can be tracked by the death dates in some cemeteries. Park service staff found a lost slave graveyard near Meadows of Dan by using ground-searching radar. Family histories can be traced among the tombstones.

"All of this work paints a fuller picture of the people who lived here before and after the parkway," Kidd said.

Last month, Drew Daniels traipsed across a forest floor carpeted with poison ivy to find the graves of Confederate soldier George King and his wife, Sarah Conner King. Farther down the parkway, in Floyd County, he took visitors into the woods to an African-American cemetery that has been completely overtaken by tulip poplars, poison ivy and Virginia creeper.

That wooded graveyard holds the remains of Humphrey Claytor, supposedly a black Confederate veteran. Nearby stood a marker for Orpha Kathleen Claytor Wells, who died in 1979 - just 35 years ago — yet her grave has nearly disappeared among the trees.

"There are probably 30 to 40 graves here," Daniels said, waving toward deeper woods. "Some are just marked with field stones. I imagine they were so poor, people just put a stone up."

Some parkway cemeteries are still well-kept by families. The Shaver Cemetery near mile marker 136 is particularly picturesque, enclosed within a stone wall and surrounded by pastureland and grazing cattle.

Down the road, the Wimmer Cemetery is where Revolutionary War soldier John King is buried in a grave marked with a fairly contemporary headstone. Nearby, however, are the graves of less-celebrated, mountain-born babies who died during a time when the only doctor in the community was a midwife.

"Here's one. . 'Born and died, 1904,' " Drew Daniels read. "They didn't get much chance."

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