Labor of love: Deerfield family completes gravestone restoration project
Kai Nalenz, president of Gravestone Services of New England, compares some of his recent restoration work in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Deerfield to photographs of their original state.
Kai Nalenz, president of Gravestone Services of New England, stands by the only remaining untouched gravestone of about 100 he has restored for the Childs family in Deerfield's Laurel Hill Cemetery.
The name 'Childs' carved into one of the restored gravestones of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Deerfield.
Alice Childs Harris and her now late husband, Donald Harris, stand next to the newest monument at Laurel Hill Cemetery in 2011.
Chris Harris sits with his mother, Alice Childs Harris, at the Route 9 Diner in Hadley in January 2014. Harris commissioned the rehabilitation of over 100 historic gravestones at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Old Deerfield.
DEERFIELD — As a boy growing up in Deerfield, Chris Harris remembers taking trips with his aunt to the Laurel Hill Cemetery, where he would put charcoal or crayons to stone, lifting imprints of the stones that mark the historic burial ground’s numerous graves.
But for Harris, that particular cemetery, which sits mere feet away from the Eaglebrook School on Pine Nook Road, is more than just your everyday graveyard: many of the plots are occupied by hundreds of his ancestors and deceased relatives, members of the prominent Childs family of the Wapping section in Old Deerfield.
Now, with many of the gravestones having been exposed to the elements for centuries and showing serious signs of wear and tear, Harris decided something needed to be done to improve their condition.
So, with the encouragement of his 90-year-old mother, the last of the Childs line in Deerfield, he decided to find out which stones belonged to his relatives and then commission an expert gravestone restorer to repair some of the broken ones and clean up others that had been at nature’s mercy for hundreds of years.
“The scope of the project really goes back to our oldest relatives,” said Harris. “My mother’s great-great-great-grandfather is buried there, and so is her great-great-great-great uncle and five-‘G’ aunt.”
Harris said the process of identifying the gravestones that belong to his relatives — which include members of historically prominent Deerfield families such as the Arms, Stebbins, Sheldons, Wrights and Hawks — was an arduous task. He spent hours upon hours poring over cemetery maps, historical records and other documents as he meticulously pieced together his family’s genealogy.
“When you start learning about it, it’s kind of like a little history lesson,” Harris said.
Harris said his research shows that the first of his relatives to be buried at Laurel Hill were interred in 1803, and the most recent family member to claim a plot in the historic cemetery was his father, Donald, who died in 2013.
Other members of his family who are buried in the cemetery include his uncle James A. Childs, who parachuted into Normandy, France, during World War II, and later into eastern Holland, where he was killed on Sept. 18, 1944, the second day of Operation Market Garden.
His mother, Alice Childs Harris, 90, of South Deerfield, will be the last member of the Childs family to be buried there. The bloodline, at least in Deerfield, ends with her.
“Other Childs have moved out of the area, and the lines have sort of faded out,” said Harris, noting that the Childs family has been in Deerfield since 1710, when they moved into the area from Cape Cod.
Harris said he decided to commission the rehabilitation of the gravestones for a variety of reasons. Besides the obvious purpose of honoring his family, he said, he wanted to have the repairs done because he thinks letting their condition deteriorate reflects badly on the town as a whole.
“Until I started looking into it, I didn’t know how much damage had been done by the weather and falling tree branches for over 200 years,” Harris said. “I think it doesn’t look or bode well for a town when its historic cemeteries are falling into disrepair. Communities should look like they are going forward, not falling into disrepair.”
And the care that was taken in the restoration was not lost on Harris’ mother.
“I was shocked, I couldn’t get over how nice of a job that fellow did with all those stones that were broken or had grown into the trees,” said Childs Harris. “It was really something else. The guy did a lot of work.”
Pieces of the past
The preservation work was performed by expert gravestone restorer Kai Nalenz, owner of the New Hampshire-based company Gravestone Services of New England. Nalenz said the entire project took about three weeks and involved repairing and cleaning over 100 gravestones, most of which were made of either slate or marble.
Nalenz has been professionally preserving gravestones for the past 10 years. He said that he first became interested in working with stone through his father-in-law, who is a stonecarver. He received his training through the Association for Gravestone Studies and said he has worked on tens of thousands of gravestones to date.
“I always had an interest, but that’s how I got into it,” he said.
Nalenz said many of the cemetery’s gravestones weigh close to 1,000 pounds, and many of them had either fallen over or sunken into the ground over the course of two centuries.
“It must have taken a lot of effort to bring them down here,” he said.
Raising one of the stones, a 1,200-pound obelisk, required the use of a special 6,000 pound crane with a 30-foot boom.
Once the obelisk was upright and reset, Nalenz said he had to use nearly a half ton of gravel and stone to stabilize it. The entire project required over five tons of gravel.
According to Harris, the obelisk marks the grave of Civil War veteran James Childs, who died Sept. 18, 1864, at the notorious Andersonville, Ga., Confederate prison.
Other stones didn’t require quite as much exertion, he said. Some were still standing but had either broken in half or had pieces missing. To fix those stones, he used a combination of epoxy and hydrated lime water. The marble stones required the use of crushed stone to stabilize their bases and provide adequate drainage, Nalenz said.
“If you let the stones stand in too much moisture, they’ll get soft and begin to deteriorate. Then, what’s the point?” said Nalenz.
Those that weren’t as badly damaged just needed to be cleaned up and polished to showcase their intricately carved lettering and artwork. Although Nalenz cleans up the artwork, he said he stops short of attempting to recarve it.
“I don’t do any recarving, because I think that’s like painting over a master’s painting,” he said. “It’s just not meant to be done.”
Nalenz said he was particularly glad to have been able to work on the project due to the Harris’s enthusiasm and dedication to their family history.
“In all my years of gravestone preservation, I’ve met no one with that kind of commitment to their family history. The amount of research he did was just phenomenal.”