SENECA, Ill. — Not much is known about Mary Carey, who was born in London in 1871 and died, just after her 20th birthday, in northern Illinois.
The same can be said for Daniel Smith. Smith was a quartermaster sergeant in Company F of the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry during the U.S. Civil War.
How he came to be buried in a small cemetery on the outskirts of Seneca is a mystery. But it’s one that Alanna Chapman, a senior at Seneca High School and a member of the Seneca FFA, is determined to solve.
“I am in the process of learning how he ended up here because he was born in Wisconsin,” Chapman said.
Levi Maierhofer, another Seneca senior and fellow FFA member, is doing his own research into the life of Mary Carey.
“Every day I am learning more about her,” Maierhofer said.
Seneca FFA members have been busy uncovering the stories and restoring the tombstones of those buried in Mount Hope Cemetery and Mount Calvary Cemetery in Seneca as part of a community service and learning experience.
“This is our project now. I call it ‘Extreme Makeover: Gravestone Edition,’” said Jeff Maierhofer, ag teacher and FFA adviser at Seneca High School.
Maierhofer, who also is the president of the Seneca Historical Guild, gave 20 of his students a unique assignment.
“They had to pick two tombstones they wanted to fix up. One of them had to be a veteran or a farmer. They had to clean those two stones, and they had to research that person and do a written, two-page report, a biography, of that person,” Maierhofer said.
He was inspired to do the project after he saw a story about a teacher in Italy, who taught next door to a church that had a graveyard. The teacher taught students in the graveyard, using the cemetery and tombstones for lessons in everything from math to history to spelling.
“This has always been in the back of my mind, ‘How do we go back and fix our cemeteries?’” Maierhofer said.
He applied for and received a “Living to Serve” grant through National FFA.
Most of the students chose a veteran, whose tombstones are marked with American flags. Maierhofer, with his knowledge of local history and local farming families, pointed out the graves of farmers, for those who wanted to start cleaning those stones and do their assignments on those lives.
The biography of the person whose stone they clean is just part of the assignment.
“The next step is they have to do a first-person oral report, in front of the tombstone, as that person,” Maierhofer said.
Maierhofer said that in addition to sprucing up the cemetery and cleaning the older tombstones he wanted students to learn how those buried there really lived.
“I’m trying to tie in more than just, hey, clean a tombstone. I want them to realize things about these people right here — he died in the Civil War. The idea of doing the farmer was: what did they raise, what did they use for power, where was their farm? Do they still have family here in the community? I want them to learn the history,” Maierhofer said.
The students use D/2, a biological cleaning solution that is designed to clean dirt, mold, algae, lichens and other grime from stonework, including tombstones.
The process involves spraying the D/2 on the stone, then carefully scrubbing the dirt away with sponges and a soft brush, then rinsing. Due to the age and condition of the older tombstones, it takes a few times before the students find out who is buried beneath their stone.
“I couldn’t even see the color of the stone,” Alanna Chapman said.
She chose a veteran’s grave toward the front of Mount Hope Cemetery. It took some elbow grease and a few days before Daniel Smith’s name and details emerged.
“The first day we did it was our last class before the weekend. I came back after the weekend and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, this can’t be the same stone.’ It looked so different,” she said.
The process takes some time, Chapman said.
“You spray the D/2. You wait a little bit, scrub it, rinse and then continue,” she said.
If students can’t read the name even after the stone is cleaned, Maierhofer said the Mount Hope Cemetery has a cemetery inventory on file so the student can research the grave.
Levi Maierhofer is Jeff’s son. Levi and his brother, Calvin, a sophomore at Seneca, have worked this year as groundskeepers for the cemetery. That involves mowing, trimming and general landscape work around the cemetery. So, he’s been looking at these stones since April.
“There were a lot of names on the stones, like the one I’m working on, that I couldn’t read before, and a lot of the artwork that we can see now on the stones,” Levi said.
The students’ interest grew as they cleaned their stones and found out names and stories.
“Most of them have done their two and they are so excited that they are trying to do all the stones around here. I have never had a group of kids so engaged in a project. To a kid, every one of them is excited,” Jeff Maierhofer said.
When it comes to the research, the local history buff in Maierhofer takes over.
“I give them just enough to get them started and off they go,” he said.
The news of the project also has taken off.
The Facebook post that Maierhofer made on the Seneca FFA’s page has had over 1,500 likes and has been shared over 3,000 times. The post had reached over 39,000 people in the United States and abroad.
Many people have reached out to find details about how the cleaning process works. Maierhofer didn’t waste the opportunity to teach another lesson.
“I told them we’ve got a lot of pressure. People are going to be stopping by and looking, so your stone better look good,” he said.