Third-graders present findings on old Cape cemetery

Saturday, May 24, 2008
Southeast Missouri State University Environmental Science major Devin Vitt, center, showed Franklin Elementary third-graders variations found by ground-penetrating radar in Cape Girardeau's Old Lorimier Cemetery in this Nov. 2 photo. Southeast Missouri State University and Franklin Elementary are collaborating on an Old Lorimier Cemetery book project thanks to a grant from the History Channel. KIT DOYLE

Preservation of Old Lorimier Cemetery typically has been championed by historians. Over the past year, a group of third-graders from Franklin Elementary has been leading the effort.

With a $10,000 grant from the History Channel, the 8- and 9-year-olds spent the school year working on their cemetery project, called "Digging up History."

"Our history is in danger of being lost," said student Samartha Shrestha, speaking to fellow third-graders throughout the district. Franklin students presented their findings Friday at Southeast Missouri State University's Academic Hall.

Students learned about cholera outbreaks, Mississippi River shipwrecks and unmarked graves. They canvassed Old Lorimier Cemetery, photographing gravestones and researching notable people buried there. They heard ghost stories. But most importantly, teachers say, the students learned about the city's founders and their place in the community.

A booklet of their findings will be released this summer, and each third-grader in the district will receive one.

Franklin Elementary, paired with Southeast Missouri State University, is one of 27 groups nationwide to receive a Save Our History grant, which is intended to encourage students to learn, document and preserve history in their communities, according to the History Channel's Web site. Franklin art teacher Elizabeth Thomas said 150 applications were considered.

"We wanted to do this because of vandalism at Old Lorimier Cemetery. We wanted to teach them how important it is to preserve history," Thomas said.

Some students didn't immediately latch on to the idea of visiting a cemetery. But their enthusiasm grew, teacher Christi Fryman said. "It's done a lot to give them a sense of pride about Cape Girardeau that they didn't have before this," she said.

The cemetery is the oldest in Cape Girardeau. It is the resting grounds of former university presidents, politicians, businessmen and developers, and is considered by many local historians to be the richest historical site in the city.

It has also been a target for vandals. In 2005, nearly 70 gravestones were toppled, resulting in thousands of dollars of damage.

Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast, was the first to hear about the grant and helped apply for it. He selected Franklin because it is the elementary school closest to the cemetery.

He and colleagues helped students navigate the cemetery and taught students the history of the site. David Andrews, manager of Video Services at Southeast, accompanied the team to record the experience. Andrews will compile the footage into a DVD that will be placed in each booklet. The DVD will also be sent to the History Channel for a possible airing on the network.

Student Allison Vaughn said the most interesting part of the project was learning about the city's founders and how they died. There are 1,446 marked graves in Old Lorimier, but there could be up to 8,000 people buried there. Some people are buried in mass graves, student learned. At the height of a cholera outbreak, dead infants were placed on porches to be picked up by a death wagon.

People buried in the cemetery include Lucius Cheney, the first president of Southeast; Louis Houck, who helped develop railroads through Southeast Missouri; and Sen. Alexander Buckner.

"Now we have 50 young people who are advocates for that cemetery, respect that cemetery and respect the history that is there," Nickell said.

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