MONMOUTH — Students from Monmouth middle and high schools gathered at the Monmouth Center Cemetery Sunday afternoon to spruce up the grounds and repair a couple of headstones.
"Be gentle," social studies teacher Jocelyn Gray urged the students as they gathered rakes, clippers and brushes and scattered to different areas of the cemetery.
Gray said the service project was the students' idea following a trip to the cemetery, where she linked the tangible remembrances of the graves to a history lesson of the area. Upon seeing the condition of some of the stones, Gray said the kids wanted to do something.
Following two months of fundraising, including bake sales, standing outside businesses with donation buckets and fundraising at the Apple Festival in Monmouth, Gray said the kids raised about $168, enough to repair a couple of the fallen stones.
"We're fixing a couple of the stones today in stages," she said, adding that they will return later in the week. According to Gray, the kids want to continue their fundraising efforts and return to repairs in the spring.
While some of the students can get school credit for spending their Sunday working in the cemetery, Gray said most of them simply wanted to be a part of the project."It's a neat thing that's going on here," she said.
Not only did the project help the community and provide educational opportunities, but it also spawned a mystery.
While working on the base of the fallen headstone of Seth Martin, sophomores Duncan Grant and Jayme Rogers found two keys wedged between the headstone and the base. According to the stone, Martin died on Jan. 30, 1897, at the age of 47.
Gray said the students researched Martin, even going on ancestry.com to find clues to his life, but the reason for the keys remains a mystery, one that will remain with Martin when his stone is fully reassembled with the keys returned.
The next project for the students will be righting fallen stones like that of Hannah Swett, who died in 1871 at the age of 37.
While some students hauled tarps filled with leaves down to the woods, Grant and freshmen Jordhan Coward, Kelsea Blanton and Rebecca Bero dug a trench around Swett's headstone to make lifting the large marble stone easier.
The students' research into the cemetery revealed a diverse crowd among those interred, including a Revolutionary War soldier, several who died in the Civil War and even a slave.
According to Gray, the number of Civil War graves was not surprising considering Monmouth Academy used to be a military school before it was a high school.
Nearby, fellow teacher Dennis Price applied epoxy to Martin's stone. Price's father used to repair headstones, a knack that rubbed off on his son.
Price threw in a science lesson as he wrapped a band clamp around the base, telling his students how the chemical reaction of the epoxy gives it its strength as well as its toxicity.
He spoke to them in a southern drawl he brought with him to Readfield from his old home in Virginia while snapping paint stirrers to smooth out the epoxy.
Students laughed and chatted over refreshments provided by Gray, adding levity among the backdrop of stones of marble, slate and limestone.
Nearby, a small but ornate stone belonging to 10-year-old Carrie May Welch read, "Fold her, oh Father, in thine arms and let her henceforth be a messenger of love between our human hearts and Thee." She was listed as the only child of Milton and Caroline Welch.
Sophomore Emily Levasseur raked the area around Welch's grave. She said when her class began studying the history in the graveyard, she focused on war veterans and Otis Welch in particular.
Levasseur said Welch was a Leeds-born Monmouth resident who went south during the Civil War to become an officer in the Confederate Army.
Sophomore Andie Houston said she was studying the cemetery as part of a "how to be a historian" unit. She said her class studied lifespans and how people lived, including Internet searches of other cemeteries for comparison.
She described the conditions at the cemetery as "grimy and gross," when they took their initial tour.
Pleased with what she called a "student-driven" project to help their community, Gray said they are looking further down the road, wanting to help with repairs at the Monmouth Ridge Cemetery, damaged by a mother and daughter on Sept. 28.
On Oct. 21, 42-year-old Melissa Grant and 20-year-old Savannah Lowe were charged with aggravated criminal mischief in connection with the Sept. 28 incident where the two rammed each other's vehicles at the Monmouth Ridge Cemetery, causing $34,000 in damages.
Gray said her students were "appalled" by the lack of respect shown in the incident.