The Greenfield Beat: Jesseca Timmons – The man who keeps the gravestones clean

Four white marble graves in the Greenfield Meetinghouse cemetery. 

Four white marble graves in the Greenfield Meetinghouse cemetery.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

The grave of Greenfield veteran Artemas Wilson, who died in 1888.  

The grave of Greenfield veteran Artemas Wilson, who died in 1888.   STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Gene Mitchell of Greenfield surveys a monument to the Blanchard family. 

Gene Mitchell of Greenfield surveys a monument to the Blanchard family.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Recent cleaning of his grave revealed different varieties of marble. 

Recent cleaning of his grave revealed different varieties of marble.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Gene Mitchell surveys a gravestone due for another washing. 

Gene Mitchell surveys a gravestone due for another washing.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Gene Mitchell points out lichen accumulated on a Blanchard family stone. 

Gene Mitchell points out lichen accumulated on a Blanchard family stone.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Gene Mitchell surveys a stone in Greenvale Cemetery. 

Gene Mitchell surveys a stone in Greenvale Cemetery.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

A marble column in the Greenfield Meetinghouse cemetery dates to the early 1800s. 

A marble column in the Greenfield Meetinghouse cemetery dates to the early 1800s.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Restored gravestones in the Greenfield Meetinghouse cemetery. The Meetinghouse, which used to face west along with the graveyard, was turned to face south in the early 1800s. 

Restored gravestones in the Greenfield Meetinghouse cemetery. The Meetinghouse, which used to face west along with the graveyard, was turned to face south in the early 1800s.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Jesseca Timmons

Jesseca Timmons COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 06-21-2024 12:07 PM

People walking through cemetery at the Greenfield Meetinghouse in the past few years have been noticing something strange -- every grave in the cemetery, even those dating back to the early 1800s, has been scrubbed clean.

The marble stones are pristine white, the granite shiny, and all are free of moss, lichen and stains. And it is not just the stones in our Meetinghouse Cemetery; every grave in Greenfield, including Greenvale Cemetery, Whittemore Cemetery and the old Fletcher family cemetery tucked away at the bottom of Lyndeborough Mountain have all been washed and scrubbed by hand. 

The grave-cleaning is the work of Gene Mitchell and his late wife, Gwynne.  Recently, I was fortunate enough to get a tour from Mitchell, who, along with Gwynne, took on the momentous task of washing  and restoring every gravestone in Greenfield.

Gene and Gwynne, who met when they were 13 and 14 years old in Brunswick, Maine, moved to Greenfield in 1982, after living for 10 years in Wilton. They raised their family in town and founded a family business, which their son carries on. 

About six years ago, Gene, who has spent a lot of time researching his family genealogy, was searching for the the graves of some ancestors in Montville, Maine. Gene and Gwynne located the graves, but found them so blackened with lichen and age that they could hardly read the names or the epitaphs. 

“They were just in terrible shape, and my wife said, ‘We have to fix this,’” Gene recalls. 

After cleaning the family stones, Gwynne and Gene went ahead and cleaned the entire cemetery in Montville. When they got back to Greenfield, the Mitchells began investigating the state of Greenfield’s cemeteries, starting with the Meetinghouse graveyard, which, along with the Fletcher and Whittemore cemeteries, includes monuments to town residents born in the 1700s. As they worked their way through the Meetinghouse cemetery, Gwynne and Gene were fascinated to discover the delicate epitaphs buried beneath layers of dirt, moss and lichen.

“I grew up Catholic, so I don’t really know the Bible,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “But Gwynne really knew the Bible. She could identify a lot of the quotations. A lot of them were not exact – people remembered their favorite quotes certain ways, or they would merge two and have them the way they remembered them.”

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Gene and Gwynne uncovered Greenfield’s history as they worked their way through the stones. 

“In the Meetinghouse cemetery, there are graves of several Greenfield boys who died in the Battle of the Wilderness in the Civil War,” Mitchell said. “Whittemore Cemetery holds the grave of Amos Whittemore, who is the founder of Greenfield and fought with John Stark.”

Mitchell said he and Gwynne had to do a lot of research to track down the source of Whittemore’s epitaph, and finally traced it to  the last stanza of a poem about John Stark.

After Gwynne died from cancer in 2021, Gene kept up the work.

“It was a lot more fun with her,” he said. “But I know she’s still here with me sometimes.” 

Mitchell uses a low-force, battery-powered pressure washer filled with D/2 solution to wash every grave. The D/2 removes stains, lichen and moss. 

“You let it soak for 30 to 40 minutes,” Mitchell said. “Then you wipe it off, and it loosens the lichen so you can brush it off by hand.”

Over time, Mitchell said, lichen will actually degrade the stone, leaving rough patches in the surfaces of the monument. Marble is softer and more porous, and requires multiple washes, while granite is almost indestructible. 

Gwynne’s grave is in a peaceful back corner of Greenvale Cemetery. Mitchell said he got the idea to inscribe the date of their marriage on the stone after seeing the custom on some of the oldest stones in the Meetinghouse cemetery.

As we ended out tour of the graveyard, Mitchell recalled a time in his high school football locker room when some kids on the team were bragging about knocking over gravestones.

“I beat the tar out of them,” Mitchell said as he gazed over Greenvale Cemetery. “You have to show respect for a place like this. That’s how I was raised. This is sacred ground.”

Now that the town’s four major graveyards are mostly complete – some stones at Greenvale need a second washing --Mitchell is tracking down some smaller family plots in town, and may have his eye on some other cemeteries in the region, including some family graves dating back to the 1600s in Massachusetts. 

“It’s just an honor to do this work,” Mitchell said. 

Contact Jesseca Timmons at jtimmons@ledgertranscript.com if you have an idea for The Greenfield Beat.