RIDGEVILLE—Until Saturday, Enrique Galvan was unaware of gravestone maintenance.

“I’ve never actually cleaned one,” Galvan said. “I never thought anyone cleaned them. I thought they just left them like this.”

Galvan, a 17-year-old from Milwaukee, and his fellow Wisconsin Challenge Academy cadets learned the fine art of cemetery maintenance by scrubbing headstones and leveling ground at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery in Ridgeville. The work was done in cooperation with The Gathering Place, a Christian outreach ministry in rural Norwalk.

The cemetery, which has 306 headstones, dates back to 1863 and remains an active burial site. Viena Ebersold said burials ceased for about 20 years starting in the 1930s but resumed once technology improved to penetrate the site’s rocky soil.

Maintenance, however, had been variable until a group of volunteers embarked on a comprehensive upgrade.

“About four years ago, we had a big workday,” Ebersold said.

“We had to clear a lot of brush. You couldn’t even drive by the gravestones. We got a bulldozer from a congregation member, and a new fence was constructed.”

The group borrowed a stump remover from Laurie and Tom Graber, and their son, Brian, spent a day pulling stumps with Ed Gerke, Greg Kortbein and Virgil Sletten.

There was still cleaning and leveling work to do, and that’s where the Challenge Academy stepped up. The academy, based at Fort McCoy, trains youth between the ages of 16 and 18 who are one or more years behind on their high school credits, are drug-free and don’t have a felony on their record. Service projects are a big part of the six-month curriculum, and the youthful help was more than welcome.

“We do a certain amount of work, but you can only do so much,” Ebersold said. “Scrubbing the gravestones is going above and beyond. These guys are just incredible.”

Cadets used a cleaner specifically formulated for gravestones purchased from the Monroe County History Room.

“It’s really fun,” Galvan said. “You have to pour water on them to take off all the fungus, scrub it, pour water on it and scrub it again.”

The other major project was hauling dirt and leveling uneven ground.

“This will make it easier to walk and mow,” Ebersold said. “The cemetery has a big slope.”

Cadet Austin Buss, 18, of Appleton, said the project teaches cadets teamwork.

“You have to have integrity − do all the work and not skip over stuff,” he said.

The project has personal meaning to Ebersold and Laurie Graber. It’s the final resting place for Ebersold’s younger brother and her two godparents, while Graber has two grandparents and an aunt buried there.

Buss understands the meaning of the project.

“I was super-enthused to help a community I’m not part of,” Buss said. “The way I see it, a cemetery is a place for loved ones − you have to be respectful in a cemetery.”

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Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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