If These Stones Could TalkOct 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Susan Shadle Erb
By 5:45 most mornings, a big, red, pickup truck rolls through the stone gates of the cemetery near Wellsboro Area High School. Terry Erway climbs out, ready to do battle with the decades of dirt, salt, lichens, moss, and water and grass stains on stones of all shapes and sizes that mark some of the more than 9,000 graves in the twenty-two-acre cemetery.
“I drive by and some stones talk to me,” he says.
Stones like the one marking the grave of Archibald Laird, MD, (1902-1988) and his wife Ruth (1906-1999). Dr. Laird was a physician, surgeon, historian, US Army brigadier general in World War II, and author. Ruth was a musician, teacher, homemaker, and devoted wife. Terry is sure he heard their stone say, “Why aren’t you cleaning me?” He doesn’t know why he got that feeling, but he cleaned the large stone. Walking in the cemetery as morning mist clears and birds chirp, it’s easy to understand that feeling Terry gets.
It’s a big task, even for the ambitious retired educator, now in his seventies. But he’s extremely glad to be doing it, because, in 2006, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and thought he had only five years to live. He then retired as superintendent of Galeton School District, after a thirty-four-year career as an educator. That career included being a math teacher, coach, principal of Coudersport Junior/Senior High School, and principal of Wellsboro’s Rock L. Butler Middle School.
Terry survived, and is enthusiastic nearly two decades later as he opens the truck’s tailgate to reveal supplies: three five-gallon buckets of water, a water sprayer, Dawn dish detergent, D/2 Biological Solution (a very mild soap), plastic-bristle brushes, toothbrushes, and plastic scrapers.
“Never use a metal brush,” he cautions.
“They damage stones. Seventy-five percent of the stones can be cleaned with water and plastic brushes.” Some do require more. For extremely dirty stones, he uses Dawn. If a stain remains, he decides if D/2 treatment is needed.
The project started when Terry wanted to clean gravestones of thirty-six of his family members. With those done, he has a stone-cleaning list for about 100 other families graves, including some in other cemeteries—West Branch Cemetery in Delmar Township, Riverview Cemetery in the Knoxville area, and a cemetery in Mansfield. He cleans some stones upon request and does others, such as the Laird stone, that “speak” to him. He has a particular interest in those of military veterans.
“Stone cleaning involves a lot of scrubbing and in many cases, it’s rinse, scrub, rinse, scrub, spray, rinse,” says Terry. From April through August he’s cleaned more than 350 stones and plans to keep going as long as weather allows. He usually cleans six to eight stones a day and often has several in process simultaneously.
It’s all done as a volunteer, and Terry refuses payment. Instead, he suggests donations to the cemetery. He pays for the materials, including the D/2, at about $62 a gallon, of which he has used well over ten gallons. “Don’t tell my wife,” he says with a smile.
He starts early and works until about 10 a.m. for two reasons: He can’t deal with the heat, and the D/2 solution can only be used in temperatures of 45 to 85 degrees.
The biggest and most difficult monument Terry has tackled so far is the large, granite Leonard Harrison family headstone, with its many nooks and crannies, and its four limestone footstones. “It was in terrible condition,” Terry says of the large monument. “It took a week to clean all five stones.”
Terry enjoys genealogy research, and, as he moves from one part of the cemetery to another, he talks about the people buried there, some from as far back as the early 1800s. While the first burials in the cemetery were in the mid-1850s, some from earlier were moved from Academy Cemetery on Wellsboro’s Pearl Street and from elsewhere.
He’s happy others are taking interest in cleaning gravestones. Some are for family, but others just want to help. He gives instruction and provides supplies for willing volunteers. Pip Burrous, who works at the nearby school administration building and walks daily in the cemetery, is learning from him.
Pip loves seeing the information on gravestones. She saw Terry cleaning stones, and he subsequently showed her what to do. She has since cleaned dozens of stones herself, and has begun working on the stones of Mary Wells Morris, for whom Wellsboro is named, and Mary’s family. She also tackled cleaning one of the oldest stones in the cemetery, that of Levi Sherwood, which she describes as “stubborn.” But she kept working at it with four D/2 treatments.
Most of the stones she’s cleaning are military veterans and their families. “I want to honor them,” she says. “When I’m cleaning the stones, I always pray for their living descendants. There’s somebody out there who’s related to them. I don’t know who they are, but God does.”
Cemetery manager Cheryl Furrow is grateful for Terry’s work and for that of others, including Pip, who take interest in stone cleaning and various ways of maintaining and beautifying the cemetery, and of honoring the lives of those laid to rest within.
“There’s an absolute wealth of history here,” Terry says. It’s clear that he plans to keep learning from the place and cleaning stones as long as he can.
With this experience, what kind of stone would Terry choose for his own grave? He points to a beautiful black polished stone that he and his wife selected. It has sloping edges that will allow water to run off without creating damage.
“Avoid a flat top,” he advises.