Patriotism means more to Jeanne Weaver than flag-waving and salutes from the curb at Veterans Day parades. It also involves money, mileage, and mosquito bites in her quest to honor our nation’s fallen military heroes.
Weaver’s work began in 1997 when the Morgantown, Ind., resident contacted members of a local Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) chapter to help place flags on the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers in Johnson County. But when she proudly escorted DAR members to the Nay-Tremain Cemetery outside Franklin, Ind., weeds had grown taller than the ladies, brambles had run amuck, and thorny bushes reached out to stick unsuspecting passersby. The headstones themselves were buried from sight.
As Weaver dug into who was responsible for maintaining these small, rural burial sites, she discovered the county budget for cemetery upkeep amounted to a mere $500 a year.
So she began soliciting help from community groups for her cause. Unfortunately, the Boy Scouts in Trafalgar, Ind., were too young to wield weedwackers, and members of the Good Sams club had their hearts in the right place, but their elderly backs couldn’t handle the physical labor. Weaver eventually got the county’s community corrections division to assign inmates to a one-time cleanup of the Nay-Tremain Cemetery.
Weaver’s passion for these forgotten burial sites dates back to her childhood when she cleaned up relatives’ graves as part of summer family outings. She often imagined the lives of the people beneath the headstones. Years later, when her husband, Harold, served on the European front during World War II, she realized the contributions American soldiers have made to this country.
These experiences drove home the emotions Weaver felt a few years ago when she found the unmarked graves of two Civil War soldiers nestled in a grove of trees at the 80-plot Forsyth-Featherngill Cemetery. “In another 140 years, who will care for our heroes’ graves?” she frets.
Many rural cemeteries and family plots containing the graves of war veterans already have disappeared, says Lois Mauk, state coordinator of the Indiana Pioneer Cemeteries Restoration Project. Until July 1999 in Indiana, it was legal to destroy any visible sign of a cemetery’s existence if you were the lawful owner of the property and involved in any form of agriculture—provided you didn’t disturb human remains.
As part of her crusade, Weaver volunteers each Tuesday and Wednesday during good weather to help the Johnson County Historical Museum catalog every gravesite within the county’s borders. She refuses to accept even gas money for her effort. Her most recent campaign involves applying to the federal government for military stones to mark fallen veterans in the three rural cemeteries she’s taken under her wing.
Finally, Weaver and Nancy Mullendore Hunt, a close friend recruited to the cause, continue to scour for willing hands and strong backs. This summer, they convinced 18-year-old Josh York of Boy Scout Troop 256 in nearby Franklin to take on the Forsyth-Featherngill Cemetery as his Eagle Scout project. He devoted 154 hours toward transforming the cemetery from a wreck to an honorable memorial. The teens he tapped to help used a tractor to knock down heavy-duty weeds, applied stump removers and chainsaws to felled trees, and re-leveled sunken headstones.
“I thought this would be an easy project—I way underestimated it,” York laughs. “We had to depend on weather because epoxy wouldn’t set on broken stones if it rained. And the chiggers were horrible.”
York also wound up in the local hospital emergency room with poison ivy in his mouth. Yet he counts the project a success.
“Looking at the before and after pictures, I felt only satisfaction. It really boosted my pride,” he says.
It’s that kind of dedication that keeps Weaver’s spirits high in this increasingly tough mission.