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Culpeper County Cemetery Project identifies 450-plus burial grounds
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Culpeper County Cemetery Project identifies 450-plus burial grounds

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A local historian interested in preservation recently launched a database that has so far has identified more than 450 cemeteries in Culpeper County.

Culpeper resident Jim Bish, a former member of the Prince William Historical Commission, served as chairman for that group’s cemetery committee. He now volunteers at the Museum of Culpeper History and is interested in saving evidence of the past across the region.

Earlier this summer, with neighbor Wayne Wildgrube, a retired Marine, Bish undertook the Culpeper County Cemetery Project. He gave a brief presentation with his neighbor on the initiative last week to the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors.

“It is an attempt to inventory, map and survey, with the intention of eventually preserving, all the cemeteries and grave sites in Culpeper County, even those that have been lost for decades,” Bish told the board.

The project uses digital mapping, GIS and ground-penetrating radar as tools to find unmarked graves and cemetery boundaries.

“Cemeteries are a very important historic resource within Culpeper County. Literally, the history and progress of Culpeper County in the past 272 years was made by those individuals who mostly now are buried in our county’s soil,” Bish said.

Those burial grounds should not be forgotten, he added, and are worthy of the utmost preservation. The ongoing project intends to protect historic properties at the local level and from encroachment and growth pressures and create interest in historic preservation, and the necessary framework at the local level for these protections.

Secondary sources have already positively identified the hundreds of Culpeper cemeteries—including known sites such as Culpeper National Cemetery, Fairview Cemetery and Culpeper Masonic Cemetery—along with countless church graveyards.

“The upcoming difficult part will be to confirm locations and produce surveys for each cemetery and burial ground,” Bish stated in an email to the Star-Exponent. “We have started to do some field work where we will confirm the cemetery or burial ground location, record the approximate number of graves and tell about the size and condition of the cemetery.”

The lengthy work will be best tackled in late winter and early spring due to less overgrowth, ticks and poison ivy, he said.

Bish and Wildgrube have collaborated on the project with Culpeper County Director of Planning Director Sam McLearen, Culpeper County Planning Department GIS Coordinator Pamela Schiermeyer and Kristie Kendall, Historic Preservation Coordinator with Piedmont Environmental Council.

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Wildgrube noted at the board meeting that Culpeper County residents had been very helpful as he and Bish move around fields, woods and other landscapes, often on private property, doing field surveys in the cemetery search. He told the board, “If you would be able to support our project, the citizens would as well.”

Landowner David Van Luven, who has property in the Raccoon Ford area of Culpeper County, provided access to Bish and Wildgrube to the Tolson Family Cemetery, which the family is getting too old to care for, Van Luven said.

“I’ve been trying to do what I can to keep it up out of respect for the family and those who have died,” Van Luven told the Star-Exponent in a phone interview Thursday. “I hate to see such places get overgrown and forgotten. I feel it’s our responsibility to carry on with preserving that history.”

A veteran of the Revolutionary War is buried in the Tolson Family Cemetery, and there are stones that likely date back even farther than that, Van Luven said.

A number of rough headstones dot one side of that cemetery, poking up betweena carpet of dark-green periwinkle leaves.

“Periwinkle is the first sign of an old cemetery,” Bish said. “If you see a lot of periwinkle growing, it’s very likely there are stones in there—that’s the case about 99 percent of the time.”

People grew periwinkle because it was an attractive groundcover that kept the weeds and other undergrowth away, Bish said, a tradition that stretches back to America’s roots. Cedar trees are also often found growing in a cemetery plot.

“Before people began to embalm bodies, sometimes cemeteries like these would emanate a smell,” Bish said. “The cedar trees tended to keep the smell under control.”

Often in older cemeteries the stones marking graves are rough-hewn, as families did not have resources or access to a skilled stonecutter, Bish said. They would cut a stone into a square and sometimes carve initials in it. For older graves there is often a bigger stone for the head and a smaller stone at the foot.

In the winter, it’s easier to notice depressions in a burial site where bodies were interred, according to Bish.

An interactive map developed as part of the project covers the county with red markers indicating sites of final resting places of former residents.

Contact to provide details about any abandoned cemeteries or suspected cemeteries. Also welcome is information about a potential cemetery location from a family history or other source. Citizens can support the effort as well by allowing the small team to access cemetery sites on their land.

Culpeper Star-Exponent Editor Emily Jennings contributed to this report.

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