Documenting the county's dead

As volunteers complete a 23-year project to record pre-1950 tombstones, they search out smaller plots

April 03, 2005|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Mary Ann "Mimi" Ashcraft, After 23 years tramping through woods, fields and churchyards, volunteers with the Carroll County Genealogical Society are wrapping up a project to record every pre-1950 tombstone they could find in the county.

Most used clipboards to jot down not only the names and pertinent dates of the deceased, but notes about decorative carvings and verse, stone work, cemetery histories and settings or any other interesting details. The volunteers estimate they have copied more than 70,000 names from more than 250 places in Carroll since the project began in 1982.

"We're making one last-ditch effort to get people to report family cemeteries," said Mary Ann "Mimi" Ashcraft, chairwoman of the genealogical society's inscription committee. "Please, before the weather turns warm, and grass and weeds start growing - and snakes come out of hibernation."

Fields also will be planted soon, she said, and farmers may not want their new crops trampled, even for a worthy cause.

Beginning in 1988, the genealogical society has published nine books in seven volumes that have stayed in print continuously. The listings in them range from random stones found lying by the road to large cemeteries.

The group wants to gather additions and corrections before the information is transferred to a compact disc, she said. The CD is expected to be completed by the end of the year and to contain everything from the nine books.

One site to be added lies about 10 miles southwest of Westminster. On a hill surrounded by a field of last year's cornstalks, the headstones of Frederick Prugh (1768-1851) and Catharine Baile Prugh (1770-1846) lean against the stump of an old tree in what looks to be no more than a clump of brush. There's a footstone that may indicate a third family member whose headstone was lost.

"We discovered these after the book was printed," Ashcraft said, brushing with a gloved hand to reveal a weeping willow carved into Prugh's marble headstone, made in Baltimore in a pattern "that was in fashion in cities in the 1820s and '30s. ... His wife's is an older-style stone, not as gorgeous."

The inscription committee hopes to find more spots like these, said Ashcraft, who said anyone who knows of a stone or a family plot that might have been overlooked should contact the society at

"Our first cemetery copying was July 11, 1982," she said, at the Emmanuel Baust Lutheran Church cemetery on Old Taneytown Road in Tyrone. "We got about a third of the cemetery done that day, under threatening summer skies."

Since then, about 100 volunteers put in some 15,000 hours, she said, including typing, checking and laying out the Carroll County Cemeteries series. Her mother, Nancy Paret Ashcraft, 96, sketched some of the cemeteries for the books.

Harold J. Robertson of Westminster serves as treasurer of the genealogical society and is an officer of several cemeteries, including the Westminster Cemetery Co. He almost single-handedly tackled the Westminster cemetery, after the group received permission to copy it in 2003.

The cemetery is the county's largest, "about 5,000 stones," Robertson said - and a book unto itself. The cemetery, founded circa 1790 and still in use, includes the graves of city founder William Winchester; a baseball player killed in a train wreck; and a Civil War veteran.

"It took about 400 hours, and another 400 hours to put into the computer," Robertson said. Westminster Cemetery was the project's ninth and final book, published last fall.

The Carroll genealogical society was founded in 1981, and genealogy has been the impetus for inscription projects nationwide, according to the Association for Gravestone Studies in Greenfield, Mass. The projects were begun nationally in the 1920s by the Daughters of the American Revolution and in the 1930s by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, but have been increasingly popular since the 1960s and 1970s.

Wayne L. Adams, who lives near Uniontown and gave up copying inscriptions in the field because of macular degeneration, organized the information to include maps of the cemetery layouts, as well as locations and brief histories.

"It's been really a lot of fun," Adams said. "The computerization part of it is something I can handle, after I dropped out of transcribing. This was a project we all enjoyed working on and took a great deal of pride in. The mapping is what we feel we've got a unique approach on. We had to design our own system, but we think it works."

Adams planned the original format for the books, Ashcraft said, "and we've followed his method ever since. We've received many compliments from genealogists for the two ways the information is presented: alphabetically, but also in the row and stone order within each cemetery."

Robertson said, "We made money. It was a better-than-break-even project." The books have sold about 2,000 copies in 38 states and Mexico.

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