Stockton mourns destruction of cemetery

Friday, May 23, 2003

STOCKTON, Mo. -- Steve Jones kneeled beside his grandparents' grave Thursday in Stockton Cemetery, patiently scraping debris from a surface that once supported a 300-pound granite headstone.

He was determined to return the marker -- knocked to the ground when a May 4 tornado ripped through this southwest Missouri town -- to its upright position before Memorial Day.

"There's one headstone that I know was on a grave on the other side of the road," Jones said.

"If anyone has any questions about how strong the wind was, all they need to do is come out here."

The cemetery was the pride of Stockton. Tourists on their way to Stockton Lake to boat and swim would often comment to locals about the manicured grass and carefully placed flowers, as well as the groves of white pine and sweet gum trees that separated it from the town's bustling commercial district.

That all changed when a tornado churned a path of destruction through Cedar County, killing three residents and leveling numerous homes and businesses.

Even with all the damaged structures, talk across the county about the tornado almost always turns to the cemetery.

The 60-acre site was hit head-on. Row after row of headstones made of granite, marble and rock -- some dating to the 1800s -- were toppled like dominos.

Several measuring at least 5-feet long and weighing several tons were tossed about.

Cluttered grounds

Hundreds of twisted and broken trees clogged the cemetery's narrow, asphalt roads. Metal roofing, insulation and other debris cluttered the ground.

"You just can't believe how pristine and beautiful it really was," said Steve Billigmeier, the cemetery's caretaker. "Not today -- not now."

Brad Wommack, president and chairman of Wommack Monument Company, estimated at least 1,000 headstones in the cemetery were knocked over by the tornado. His company was hired by the city to upright the stones.

It's a job that likely will take several weeks and untold hours of labor.

His crew planned to start in early June, although Wommack regretted that he could not get it done in time for Memorial Day.

"We cover over 1,000 cemeteries," he said. "If it was not the best, it was one of the best maintained cemeteries in this area."

The city hired Wommack to restore the cemetery for fear residents might get hurt trying to do it on their own, said Jerry Snider, the cemetery's board president. A typical 2-foot-by-1-foot marker weighs about 200 pounds.

The cemetery board plans to collect donations over the Memorial Day weekend to help cover the costs, he said. The board also hoped to eventually replant trees.

"What took five minutes for the tornado to destroy will take five years for us to repair," Snider said. "If you count the time to get the trees back in shape, that could take 50 to 100 years."

Jones, however, wanted to get his relatives' graves decorated before Monday. The trunk of his mother's car was filled with purple silk tulips and colorful spring bouquets. All told, 27 family stones were toppled.

It would nag at him until the job was done, Jones confessed.

"It's going to be a sad Memorial Day," he said. "It sure is depressing to see all the damage."

Meanwhile, Billigmeier and his assistant were mowing grass and picking up debris in anticipation of the expected throng of weekend visitors. Workers hired by state and federal agencies were hauling off trees.

"We're doing what we can for Memorial Day," Billigmeier said. "We couldn't even get to our equipment until Tuesday because it was under what used to be our barn.

"Come back next year, and it will be better. It'll look like Pebble Beach golf course."

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Editors: Donations can be sent to Stockton Cemetery Relief Fund, Liberty Bank, P.O. Box 460, Stockton, MO 65785.

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