Monday, September 12, 2011

Tombstone Tour 2011

Chariton Monument Co.'s Dick Seddon

This year’s Chariton Cemetery History Tour, sponsored by the Historic Preservation Commission, included a stop outside the gates, as well as several inside, late Sunday afternoon. The focus during this tour, the eighth annual, was on undertakers and tombstone creators.

Just across Highway 14 from the main cemetery gates, Dick and Gary Seddon, of Chariton Monument Co., provided a comprehensive and well-planned introduction to the art and mystery of turning out a tombstone, including an informative brochure produced for the occasion.

Inside the cemetery, current funeral directors John Pierschbacher and Martin Buck told us about undertakers of the past, Ralph Downs and Sam Beardsley, and descendants of Frank and Fred Dunshee provided information about the brothers’ undertaking businesses.

Our stop at the monument company concluded the tour because we didn’t want to rush the Seddons, who went to a good deal of trouble to accommodate our guests.

Outside in the shade, Dick Seddon demonstrated how templates for the inscribed surfaces of monuments used to be prepared --- hand-drawn onto a rubberized sheet affixed to the stone’s surface, then cut by hard --- and answered tour participant questions.

Templates now are designed and cut using computer-based equipment and Gary Seddon took us inside in smaller groups for tours of the shop where actual production is done --- a process I’d never seen before.

First, he explained, the template of the design is attached to the surface of the stone to be inscribed, other surfaces of the stone are masked to prevent damage and portions of the template covering areas of the stone surface where detailed lettering will be inscribed is cut away. The stone then goes into the sandblasting chamber where the polished surface is removed from the inscription areas, which are then bombarded by steel shot to lighten them.

Once that job is done, the template is reassembled on the stone and it is returned to the sandblasting chamber where lettering and designs are inscribed, a process that requires constant and even movement of the blasting device which, should it stop, would bite through the template in seconds and damage the granite surface.

We took a look at one beautifully detailed black monument headed for the Russell Cemetery onto which a large and detailed image of a farmstead had been inscribed. While it is possible to use laser equipment to produce something similar, the Seddons employ a Wisconsin-based artist who travels to the shop in Chariton and executes commissions like this entirely freehand using specialized equipment.

Dick Seddon also satisfied my curiosity about why the beautiful “ruby red” granite once used for countless tombstones in Lucas County and across the Midwest is no longer available. That granite, Dick said, came for more than a century from a quarry near Wausau, Wisconsin, that mined a deposit of flawless red granite. The quarry company also was meticulous about providing only the best granite, resulting in what Dick said was the biggest scrap heap in the industry.

By now, however, that deposit has been exhausted and newer owners of the quarry are not interested in providing the type of stone required for tombstone manufacture. As a result, most tombstones now are in shades of black and gray.

Inside the cemetery gates, we gathered first around John Pierschbacher, of Pierschbacher Funeral Home, who discussed Ralph Downs, at the time of his death in 1976 the oldest active undertaker in Iowa, and his wife, Fern. The Downs Funeral Home was a block and a half east of the square on the north side of Court Avenue in the old J.E. Stanton home and John actually worked there for a few years after Downs Funeral Home had become Mosher Funeral Home. Sorry about the quality of the photo. John was standing partly in shade and partly in sun and I was too lazy to photograph him properly.

Our next stop was at the Frank Dunshee family lot where the Michael boys, grandsons of Frank, and Flora Belle Hixon, a daughter of Frank’s brother, Fred, filled us in on their family, which in its time operated a hardware store on the square as well as two funeral homes in the north part of town.

The final stop inside the cemetery was at the graves of Sam and Edith Beardsley where Martin Buck, also a funeral director with Pierschbacher Funeral Home, was present to tell us about the couple who opened Chariton’s first funeral home, as opposed to storefront rooms, and during 1931 turned the old Frank Crocker mansion into what probably was the finest funeral home in southern Iowa. Beardsley Funeral Home later was purchased and extended by Keith and Mary Fielding and is now operated by Clark and Maureen Fielding, who purchased the business from his parents.

While driving through the cemetery, brief shops also were made near the gravesites of other early undertakers, the Melvilles, John Ekfelt and John Miley, as well as near the graves of Charles Dunn Sr. and Jr., the Seddons’ predecessors at Chariton Monument, and Wilfred Beardsley, Sam’s father, who was one of Chariton’s earliest marble cutters and tombstone manufacturers.

The tombstone tour is the Preservation Commission’s only fund-raiser and proceeds derived from the admission fee and business sponsorships is used primarily to finance the cost of nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. That process is underway now for the Chariton Post Office building as well as the Chariton Airport terminal.

Alyse Hunter is general coordinator of the tour, Melody Wilson is prinicipal researcher and the rest of us do whatever’s needed. The Larry Clarks locate and flag featured gravesites, Martin Buck ended up as a performer this year and I provide narration on the bus --- and block the view by standing beside him of our good-natured and competent driver (there are some tight corners in that cemetery, not to mention the challenge of exiting the museum driveway).

It was a lot of fun and we couldn’t have asked for better weather this year. OK, it could have been just a little cooler.

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