Berks County Assn. of Graveyard Preservation
Growing up on our farm in Berks County, one of the things I loved to do was walk the dirt road, with my siblings, David and Gladys, to the Siegfried’s Family Cemetery. Once there, we’d help each other up onto the stone wall, that was covered by a red tin roof, and run and run on top of it.
Although I was scared to venture there alone, but for the love of my mother, I walked there to pick the blue bells and daffodils for her one Mother’s Day.
I was telling my breakfast friends about my latest venture to this cemetery with my husband. I told them I was surprised to see the cemetery was in such good upkeep. One of my friends stated, “I’ll bet it’s the Berks County Association of Graveyard Preservation.”
Thus it was, that I had my next idea for an article. In my research I found, Les Rohrbach, to be president of the association. Les, left me know, that the cemetery of my childhood was taken care of by Rodale Institute, who now own the land.
I asked Les how he became involved in the BCAGP, “After I retired, I began researching my genealogy. I found ancestors who were buried in a number of old graveyards from a book published by BCAGP. I thought by joining the association I’d have the opportunity to find the graveyards and see where my ancestors lived and were buried.”
BCAGP was founded in 1994. In the 1980s in Berks County, many people worked at assembling and organizing historic genealogical records from churches, cemeteries, and family graveyards. Les feels in collecting this data from tombstones, most were in utter disrepair, thus some moved on to improve the condition of the graveyards.
“Jackie Nein,” Les continues, “was a leader in this movement and became executive director of BCAGP. She was energetic and devoted to preserving historic graveyards. When she died in 2000, BCAGP lost the leadership and dynamism she brought to the effort. A period of little activity began. In the mid-2000s a few remaining members decided to try to resume activities. They had the good fortune of a trust Jackie has established, in her will, to help fund BCAGP preservation efforts.”
Since the charter defines itself as a Berks County Association, the activities are limited to Berks County. Les told me, “Occasionally, descendants from a family ask us for assistance. The more willing they are to support our work, the greater the likelihood we’ll assist them. We try to spread our activities around Berks, though a preponderance of surviving graveyards are in eastern Berks.”
Keeping nature at bay is an ongoing focus of the work. Les explained, “We don’t keep sites pristine in the sense of a nicely mowed lawn. We attempt to keep sites from being overrun by grass, weeds, trees, and undergrowth, so people can at least walk around and view the site.. At times, we have to remove dead trees because they damage tombstones and walls. We also repair masonry walls and broken tombstones, which is the greatest expense. Some of the members, in doing research of historical families, have found deeds with easements that were granted to maintain a graveyard, or exceptions that exclude the graveyard when the surrounding land is sold,”
I asked Les about the support of a yearly cleanup done by Oley Valley High School students, “Twenty or more graveyards will typically be reached by this effort. It has been a great help in keeping these sites under control. If BCAGP was left to care for them, fewer than half would be addressed. It gives the students a chance to learn about people who settled where they now live. Other people, sometimes organizations, volunteer to maintain a graveyard. Frequently, they are retired individuals and their efforts only last as long as their health does. Nevertheless, their efforts are appreciated and provide some good years of maintenance where BCAGP can focus elsewhere.”
Les told me most of the landowners are cooperative and appreciate the work they do. “We try to accommodate them. Since many graveyards are ‘planted in’ we schedule our activities so as not to harm crops. In a few cases, when we are not welcome, we just go elsewhere. Our money is best spent in graveyards, not in the courts.”
“The 1990s research yielded over 300 historic family graveyards in Berks County, but surface evidence could only be found in a third of these. There must be many more burial sites that are lost forever. Only the wealthy had the means to purchase quality tombstones and build walls. Without stone walls or tombstones, evidence of the site does not survive. After the family moves away from a graveyard, care soon ceases regardless of tombstones and walls.”
Without the Nein Trust, the BCAGP’s income is meager. As funding dwindles they have to scale back. Sadly, Les tells me, “Nature does not go away. Every year the battle continues. Decades down the road, what will remain? The masonry work that we do now should last decades so those sites should be there, maybe hidden by nature. Or, will we have successors who keep up the battle?”
Many photos of graveyards and the work done, can be found on Facebook (htty://www.facebook.com/pages/Berks-County-Association-for-Graveyard-Preservation/150047911461). Their web page (http:// bcagp.org/). Contains newsletters doucumenting BCAGPs history, contact and membership information can be found on the web page or call Les at 610323-1703.