Berks County Assn. of Grave­yard Preser­va­tion

The Kutztown Area Patriot - - OPINION - Ca­role Christ­man Koch

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.

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