Cape Girardeau couple restoring cemetery on family farm

Sunday, May 17, 2009
Judy Wilferth sits on a tractor scoop for a better photo angle Tuesday at Miller Cemetery on the family's property in Millersville. (Kit Doyle)

When Rock and Judy Wilferth set out to restore the family cemetery on their farm in 2000, they were faced with plot of cracked, crumbling and misplaced grave markers.

The Wilferths, who live in Cape Girardeau but spend two or three nights a week at the property south of Millersville, knew it would take a lot of time and sweat to undo the damage done by time, neglect and careless mowing.

"To me, it didn't show respect," Judy said about the condition of the graveyard, the resting place for 147 of Rock's ancestors. Those ancestors include John Miller, who homesteaded 180 acres of the 300-acre property in 1803, immediately after the Louisiana Purchase added this part of the country to the United States. A large percentage of the those buried in the cemetery died in the 19th century.

The work of restoring the cemetery was twofold: determining where the displaced markers should go, and repairing the stones, many of which were broken into several pieces.

Judy delved into the tedious research that went into finding out which stones went where. She used a variety of family documents and the book "Millersville and the Miller Family -- The History of One of the Pioneer Families of Cape Girardeau County." The book was written and published originally in 1939 by Helen Miller Penzel Ritgerod and Henry A. Ritgerod, then updated in 2007 by Joe Miller Wilferth, Rock and Judy's son who teaches rhetoric and creative writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Rock Wilferth is the seventh generation to have his family's farm in Millersville. His son is buried at Miller Cemetery on the family's property.

Little by little, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, and each of the 147 original burial plots was identified. Then came the task of matching markers with the plots. All but four of the grave stones needed to be moved.

Though the Wilferths knew where each grave was, they could barely read the markers. More than 100 years of weathering and buildup of algae and mineral deposits on the porous stone surfaces had made the markers virtually illegible.

They solved the problem by applying aerosol shaving foam to the surface of the marker and then using a metal yardstick like a squeegee to push the white foam into the recesses of the stone, making the inscriptions visible again.

Professionals from Ford and Sons Funeral Home in Cape Girardeau helped reset many of the broken stones into new concrete bases. Some stones were broken into several pieces and couldn't be repaired to stand erect as upright markers, so those were pieced together in mosaic form and set as horizontal markers.

"Most cemeteries back then had headstones and footstones," Judy said. Footstones typically featured only initials and perhaps a date, making it impossible to determine for sure which footstone went with a particular headstone.

Because it didn't seem right to discard the footstones, the Wilferth's decided that they would be used as pavers to create a large cross which adorns one end of the graveyard.

The restored cemetery got a new fence, gate and sign this year.

The first person buried at the site wasn't a family member but an unnamed fur trapper who died in 1803. The story is told that wolves tried unsuccessfully to dig up the body the night he was buried.

"Maybe it was the wolves' attempt at some kind of revenge," Rock said.

The Wilferths' son John was buried at the cemetery in 2006. Rock and Judy say they want to be buried there, and the three surviving Wilferth children have expressed their desire to be buried at the family graveyard.

The Miller family cemetery isn't the only restoration that has taken place on the farm, which Rock inherited from his father. His grandfather, George Dan Miller, had built the farm house on the property in 1888, and the family completed a historic restoration of the structure in time to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Rock's parents in 1988. The property also includes log cabin built from logs from a cabin originally constructed in the 1850s.

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