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Tour focused on restoring America's cemeteries comes to historic St. Michael's Cemetery

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St. Michael's Cemetery Foundation
The entrance to Pensacola's Historic St. Michael's Cemetery, which is one of the stops on the 2022 48-State Tour! Restoring America's Cemeteries.

With burials dating back to the mid-late 1700s, Pensacola’s Historic St. Michael’s Cemetery is one of the two oldest existing cemeteries in the state of Florida. As such, it has been selected as a site on this year’s 48 State Tour aimed at restoring America’s cemeteries.

The 48-state initiative will be coming to St. Michael’s on Thursday, and members of the Pensacola-area community are invited to take part in a tour and workshop on cleaning and restoring historic gravestones and monuments.

The daylong event is a part of a national movement to save the country’s historic cemeteries started two decades ago by noted gravestone conservator Jonathan Appell.

“It’s a lovely thing that he does,” said Margo Stringfield, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute. She's been at the forefront of university-led research and conservation efforts at St. Michael’s.

“He travels to 48 states, 48 days in 48 cemeteries. And, so for the state of Florida, St. Michael’s Cemetery is the cemetery he’s visiting for Florida.”

Appell is owner and operator of Connecticut-based Atlas Preservation and his resume includes work on the nearly 400-year-old Knight’s Tombstone from the floor of a church in historic Jamestown, Va.

Beyond his expertise, Stringfield says he’s also known for working with people in a common-sense manner, teaching them basic skills within their capabilities. Local conservators of St. Michael's Cemetery got a look at what he can do during a rain-hampered visit in 2021.

“What he is doing is showing people through these workshops what can be done with volunteers, easy mends that you can make that don’t require you lifting a two-ton monument and resets that level your markers so they’re not in danger of falling and snapping.”

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48 State Tour
Noted gravestone conservator Jonathan Appell is shows volunteers how to reset a historic marker.

Appell’s workshop includes instruction on cleaning techniques specific to the variety of materials, designs and architectural styles of markers found in historic cemeteries. Interested attendees should plan for active participation.

“They will level smaller markers. They will clean markers; that’s always very popular and we'll have a number of stations set up with all the materials,” said Stringfield in reference to activities after participants are trained.

“So, you will get a chance to really see what you can do if you are a steward for a cemetery, just a volunteer like most people are.”

Those who participate will come away with some skills for cleaning and minor repair of historic grave markers.

But, according to Stringfield, the main goal of such events goes far beyond. She says their aim is to educate the community about the value of historic cemeteries such as St. Michael’s and what they tells us about the people from every walk of life who are buried there and who were instrumental in the formation of the community.

“In the case of Pensacola, all of the sites in St. Michael’s Cemetery tie directly to what all is going down in Historic Pensacola Village and how we functioned as a community for several hundred years,” she said, noting that St. Michael’s dates back to the mid-late 1700s as a community burial ground.

During the 48-State Tour event at St. Michael’s, the St. Michael's Cemetery Foundation, in partnership with the Archaeology Institute, compiled a list of different gravesites that need work.

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St. Michael's Cemetery Foundation
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Pensacola's Historic St. Michael's Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in Florida, is often host to educational sessions and workshops on cleaning and repair to historic gravestones and monuments.

Reflecting the diversity of St. Michael’s, Appell’s restoration work is expected to cover a wide range of sites. It will include a review of cleaning and repairs needed at the above-ground tombs of the heritage Moreno and Gonzalez families, while focusing mostly on the smaller sites of lesser-known individuals.

“But, we’ll be able to tell participants something about these people when they come. There will be something for you to find out about this person that will probably surprise you,” Stringfield said.”

For example, the eight-acre site is the resting place of immigrants from around the world. Many buried there were captains of industry, victims of Yellow Fever epidemics and those who died in childbirth, as infants, and of old age.

"They're Still Here: the People of 1821," a digital and walking tour featuring the graves of more than 60 people who were living in Pensacola in 1821, was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Florida becoming a U.S. territory.

Stringfield says preserving burial grounds like this is important to preserving history.

“We have used St. Michael’s Cemetery as a model for how we are approaching other cemeteries here, so that everyone is doing things pretty much the same way, so we have consistency in how we approach conservation and maintenance of these cemeteries.”

The 48-State Tour event will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Participants should wear old clothes and closed-toe shoes and bring chairs, coolers, and sunscreen and make their own lunch arrangements.

More details are available online on the initiative's website and Facebook page.

To ensure there are enough supplies to go around, the public is encouraged to reserve a spot by contacting the UWF Archaeology Institute at 850-474-3015, and leaving a message if there's no answer.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.