Joe Dyer bringing new life to old cemeteries in VG

By Tony Hooker
For most folks, cemeteries hold a certain mystique.  Quiet and sometimes spooky.

For others, they’re a place to connect with loved ones who have passed.

For Joe Dyer, they’re these things and a whole lot more.  They’re not only a direct connection to his family’s history, they’re a direct connection to the history of our nation.   I recently caught up with Dyer to find out what fuels his interest and passion in refurbishing these monuments of our past.

What got you interested in cemeteries?

Genealogy.  My father started the genealogy back in the early 80’s.  He did it the old-fashioned way, without the internet and all that stuff, and I just carried on from it.  This (points to a family plot) is on my mom’s side.  Then, when I moved to my father’s side, I hit a stumbling block because I couldn’t read these stones.  Usually a picture of a stone is something you use to get the information off of.  There’s a website called findagrave.com, that’s actually used worldwide, built off of volunteers who go out and take pictures in every cemetery and post that and the memorial online and you can find family members from that site.  If a person’s been linked, you can often go back 4 or 5 generations just through the web site.  When I got to this cemetery, you couldn’t read a lot of these.  I couldn’t tell which Coslet was which, <smiles> so it became a matter of starting to clean them.  Then, after we got a few cleaned, the rest of them looked like a sore thumb, so we decided to clean the entire cemetery.  It’s been a pastime of mine for the past 4 or 5 years.  We’ve done a few cemetery restorations.  Peck cemetery is one that we did, along with this one. (Broadus)  

Have you always had an interest in history?

I’ve always had an interest in family history, but since I’ve started doing this, I’ve taken more of an interest in local history. You’ve always had your famous historical figures, your Abraham Lincolns, George Washington or Isaac Newton who have done something dramatic that’s affected everyone’s life, but these people right here (in Broadus Cemetery) have a history also, if you want to find it.  For example let’s look at this family. “walks to family plot* He was a civil war vet, and all six of his children had passed away before the war, so I’m figuring he had nothing to do and went to the civil war.  That’s the history that you can find here.  It’s hard to say what the children passed away from, diseases.  The infant mortality rate was very high then.  Doing some historical research on cemetery history, they used to sell them in plots of six, and now it’s two. The reason why it was six is because of the infant mortality rate.  One part I like about cemeteries, that you might not notice if you’re just walking through, is the artistry.  You have many with weeping willows, hands pointing up, roses and such.  Lambs almost always signified an infant.    A future project that I want to work on is to find out what each of these symbols meant to the family and to the artisans who created the headstones.  That’s another part of the history of these people that I find interesting.  This family lost four children before the age of 20.  I think people take for granted how easy we have it, when compared to the hardships that these families faced when they came over here.  My interest has just grown over the years, from finding my family to cleaning the stones to learning the history of the people who are buried here. 

What can you tell me about the history of Broadus Cemetery?

The cemetery was started in 1839, by the family of Robert Cruzan.  They lived just south of here.  He came from Central Indiana with his father and his brother in law, and through research I learned that he owned an oxen wagon that he would load with furs and take to Chicago to trade for grain in the fall.  He did a lot of trapping and would take the furs to Chicago because it was the distribution hub.  His daughter Suzanna was the first burial in this cemetery, in 1839.  The first five death dates in this cemetery were Cruzans, which led me to believe that this had started as a family plot. These aren’t the oldest sites I’ve found, there’s one in Old Baghdad cemetery that dates back to 1837. 

Do you know where they got the name Broadus?

I’ve been researching it, but I haven’t found out anything definitive.  The only thing I’ve found is that in the 1870’s, part of the land to the south and west was known as the Broadus stock farm. 

Getting back to your question about the history of the cemetery, I know that a lot of the people buried here had an affiliation to the Mt. Gilead Methodist church, which was located south of here, so I think it’s a combination of families and the church. I remember my Grandma always referred to this as the “Coslet” cemetery, but she was a Coslet!  I remember coming here on Memorial Day and putting flowers on my great-grandfather and my second-great-grandfather’s graves, but I didn’t really know much about it.

When did your family migrate west?

In the late 1850’s.  The Coslets came from New York, through Pennsylvania and Indiana.  They came across from Vermillion County, Indiana.  A lot of the older people buried in this cemetery came from Vermillion County, Indiana.  There’s a cemetery there that I visited about a month ago, and about the people buried there have relatives buried here.  In a way, you can just follow the families as they migrated west through their cemeteries.  I suppose it was word of mouth that they would send to the people back home about opportunities that were available here.  A lot of people I talk to have tried to imagine what this area was like in the 1830’s.  Did you know that there were Indians here at the time?

Learning about the history of this stuff has just been fascinating.  For example, the Cruzans had a son named William, who was born right here in Douglas County, and in the middle 1880’s he killed a man out of jealousy, right near the church.  He fled to Colorado and spent a few years in the Colorado State Penitentiary for Robbery and Forgery.  When he got out, he joined forces with another guy and within a few years, they were part of the “Wild Bunch” gang, with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  

What are some of the more interesting stones that you’ve found in your work here?

<walks to a different part of the cemetery> These are interesting. They have shoes and socks on them, which once again represents small children, but if you look a size of the shoes, they’re different, meaning they were hand carved.  There’s a monument like this in Taylor cemetery, south of Atwood, so this is one guy who created these monuments.  There are a lot of interlinked families in this cemetery.  These children died in Ottawa, IL and were brought back and buried here.  There are three people buried here who were born in before 1820 who lived into their 90’s, which was very unusual for that time.  William Coslet is another interesting person who’s buried here, and I’m actually related to him.  He had four sons, and all five of them fought for the north in the civil war. He was a Wagoneer, and he was over fifty when he volunteered.  All four of his sons were killed in the civil war.  James was brought back here to be buried.  Two of his brothers are buried in battlefield cemeteries, and the fourth brother is buried in a normal cemetery where he died.  Two died from battlefield wounds and two died from disease, which was a pretty common occurrence.  

I found that Country Singer Red Foley’s great uncle is buried here, too.  Ernie Pyle’s grandfather is buried here, as well. 

Does the size of the stone reflect the affluence of the person who’s buried? 

The size of the stone often indicated that they had a lot of money, but there are a lot of influential people buried here who have small headstones.  I don’t think there was ever a competition to have the biggest stone, for most families.  They were more modest about their money.  You can’t go through a cemetery and say that the person with the biggest stone had the most money. Every stone in the cemetery tells its own story.  

What’s the biggest agent of harm to the stones that you clean?

I would have to say lichens.  It grows like a mold and it gets really spongy and feeds on dust in the air.  Over time, it just embeds in the stone.  It’s basically a land-based barnacle.  Some of these headstones were so black with lichens that it just looked like mud when we started.  

How much longer are you going to keep doing this?

We’re going to keep going.  We’ve gotten permission to start on the Camargo Cemetery and we’re going to start working on it soon.  I’m going to do the research and mark all the stones of veterans so that they can be recognized and clean them up.  I want to note that every one of the stones we clean is washed by hand.  We don’t use power washers because that can take twenty-five years off the inscriptions, especially the sandstone monuments.  We use D-2 cleaner, which is the same cleaner that they use at Arlington National Cemetery.  We also use a cleaner called wet n forget on the bases. Neither one hurt the stones, or the environment and it is what’s been recommended for us to use. 

How can people help you out?

 I’m looking for a group or organization who would be interested in taking over putting flags out on the graves of veterans, but really the best way that people can help me out is by getting out and enjoying the cemetery, getting out and learning the history behind the people there. The chemicals I use I pay for and they last a while, but it’s more about putting the time in.  Even when I was in high school, I was interested in cemeteries, really because of the artistry that’s involved.  Someone put that angel on that headstone with a hammer and chisel, and I’m always interested in learning more.

Ron “Fuzz” Miller, who has worked beside Dyer on restorations, concurred. “You will learn something about history in every cemetery you visit,” Miller stated. 

I think of what you’re doing as a public service.  Do you see it that way?

<JD> It is, in a way.  

<RM> How many Civil War veterans stones have we cleaned?  It’s an honor for me, to have done so, really.

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