- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - History has recorded a great deal about the Civil War, but not much is known about the wife of B.T. Tucker.

She died on May 23, 1863, four months after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. She saw the beginning of the war but not its end.

After she died, she was buried in the New Salem Cemetery a mile north of Ashland, and her small gravestone identifies her only as “Wife of B. T. Tucker.” For years, the marker was left to weather and neglect, but earlier this month David Snyder took a small sander to the stone and restored it.

Now the marker shows that she lived for 26 years and 17 days before she died of unknown causes.

Every year, hundreds of gravestones fall to time and the elements. Snyder and his family cemetery restoration business, Jacob’s Ladder Cemetery Restoration Specialists, bring back their beauty and charm.

Cemetery restoration is a dying art, one that Snyder fell into seven years ago. A neglected farmhouse graveyard, a love of history and a desire to share a business with his family pushed him to master skills he could pass on to a future generation.

Cemeteries are a relatively new addition to the American landscape. They did not exist as we would recognize them today until 1830, according to Keith Eggener, formerly on the MU faculty and now a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. Before, the deceased were simply buried in a graveyard on the family property or near a local church.

In the 1820s and 1830s, a Greek revival movement swept across the United States, bringing the notion of cemeteries with it. In Greek, the word cemetery means “sleeping chamber.” Communities began to set aside rural plots for families to bury their dead.

They weren’t just places to mark graves, but destinations for strolling and reminiscing. Because there were no public parks until the 1850s, people would use cemetery excursions as a form of entertainment.

In the 20th century, cemeteries evolved into places to visit the deceased on holidays and special occasions.

“In most cases, cemeteries are at least as much (if not more) for the living,” said Eggener, the author of “Cemeteries,” a pictorial history of American graveyards. “The dead don’t care. It’s a place for you to sort out your feelings, to remember, reconcile and mourn.”

In recent years, Eggener has seen a renewed interest in historic cemeteries. “It’s part of a larger cultural interest in history, memory and preservation,” he said.

It’s this history that Snyder also finds in cemeteries that make them so fascinating.

“Cemeteries are loaded with historical information,” Eggener said. “They are filled with all kinds of things that speak to deeper currents and trends and basis in our ever evolving culture.”

One trend has been the customization of monuments. Instead of simply a stone with a name and date, monuments became more elaborate and expressive. They can tell a story, one that might be lost without Snyder’s business.

According to Snyder, Jacob’s Ladder Cemetery Restoration Specialists is the only full-time cemetery restoration company in Missouri. Snyder said the family business repairs 600 to 800 stones a season - about 4,200 over the past seven years. That is barely a scratch, he said. Thousands more need to be repaired.

The business, based in Huntsville, Missouri, specializes in repairing turn-of-the-century and older gravestones. Before 1900, grave markers were made of either marble or sandstone. But technology advanced, and masons began to make gravestones of granite, a much harder material.

“Doing the old stuff typically gets us in a cemetery because we’re the only ones that do it,” Snyder said.

“We’re a one-stop shop. There’s nothing that we’ve said, ‘No’ to so far.”

On a beautiful day in early October, Snyder pulled on a pair of camouflage gardening gloves and began to prep the stone. He used an angle grinder to clean the rough edges, explaining that the original repairer did a clumsy job. It was put together sloppily, and now it shows. Snyder is here to fix that.

He picked up a small tub of epoxy that has been warming under the hood of his pickup. Moving the goop to his truck bed, he scooped out a portion to place in a Styrofoam cup and stirred it with a clear plastic spoon. The glue congealed into a light gray material with the strong smell of rotten eggs.

“It’s a hazard of the job,” he said, adding that many days he comes home with the stench on his clothing. He spread the mixture on the surface of the stone with the spoon, positioned the broken half on top and waited 10 minutes for the epoxy to set.

After applying another type of epoxy that more closely mimics the stone around the break, Snyder took out his sander. He lightly polished the face of the stone, returning it to the original color. Finally, Snyder scraped the inside of the letters to reveal the words.

The process of restoring gravestones can be complex and difficult to understand, he said. A project can also vary a great deal in cost, depending on the size and number of stones that need to be repaired.

Yet, with an aging population that no longer tends graves as they once did, Snyder said he and his crew stay pretty busy. He often collaborates with monument companies in small Missouri towns, wishing to tread lightly on their territory. He explains what he does, and often, they hand him more work.

“It works out real well for both of us,” he said. “Some of our biggest jobs have come from monument companies.”

He also tries to enlighten the public by giving PowerPoint presentations to historical societies and genealogy groups, among others. Interest has grown this way, as well as through word of mouth.

The Columbia Missourian reports (https://bit.ly/1LV7KLe ) that with thousands of cemeteries in Missouri holding countless numbers of gravestones, it hasn’t been hard to build his business. One perk, he said, is that his customers are nearly always as invested as he is.

“It’s nice to have a business like that, where you have people that appreciate the work that you do,” he said.

When Ben Basye was looking for someone to repair a few old family gravestones in Howard County, he was referred to Jacob’s Ladder. Snyder and the rest of the crew repaired two stones where tops had separated from the base.

“He did excellent work,” Basye said.

“I’ve never seen any restoration done as well as that one,” his wife, Joanne Basye, added.

Snyder, 62, said he never imagined he’d end up on this career path. From the time he was 17 or so, he would visit his grandmother and a great-aunt, who lived in Clark County in northeast Missouri, he said.

Every Memorial Day weekend for about 20 years, they would go to the cemetery where members of their family were buried. Taking a copy of the family tree for reference, Snyder would listen to his grandmother and great-aunt tell stories about their ancestors and try to picture them.

“My grandmother and great-aunt didn’t know it, but I think they were laying the groundwork for us to be interested in this kind of thing,” he said.

It wouldn’t be until years later that Snyder understood this. After graduating from high school in Aspen, Colorado, he returned to the Midwest and joined his father’s electric motor company in Keokuk, Iowa. He had management jobs in the industry for 36 years before he decided to break out on his own.

“I always wanted to do something with my kids,” Snyder said. “And I thought if I was going to do something on my own, time was running out.”

Years earlier, he and his family had moved into a farmhouse north of Huntsville that had been around since the late 1800s. Behind the house, an abandoned cemetery held 40 gravestones. Time had weathered the cemetery, leaving a tangle of trees, brush and gravestones. The Snyder family decided to clean it up.

Snyder didn’t know where to start until he read in a rural electric co-op newsletter about a retired farmer in Tipton, Missouri, who restored old stones in cemeteries. He paid a visit to Wayne York of York Cemetery Services in the fall of 2008 to see if he could learn the basics.

At the time, York had a big job in Indian Creek, Missouri, and needed help. The two were having lunch in the middle of the first week when York said to Snyder: “Do you think you’d like to do this as a business?”

Not wanting to step on York’s toes, Snyder replied: “I don’t want you to think you’d be training your competition.”

“Oh no, there’s more work than any 10 guys can do,” York said. “I’ll support you in any way that I can.”

With that encouragement, Snyder returned home to lay the plans for Jacob’s Ladder Cemetery Restoration. He talked to a friend who knew that the Keytesville City Cemetery in Keytesville, Missouri, needed repair and suggested Snyder’s business for the job.

Today, Snyder relies a lot on his two kids for help. Over the past few years, he’s transferred most of the duties to his 17-year-old son, Ben Snyder, who started helping when he was 11. At the time, he thought his father was joking, but he jumped right in and did what he could.

“I couldn’t do much as an 11-year-old,” Ben Snyder said. “So he put me on the machines.”

Since then, he has taken on a bit more responsibility every year.

“It’s been really enjoyable,” Ben Snyder said. “I’ve learned a lot. It’s something that nobody else knows how to do.”

He and a friend, Austin Kessler, do most of the heavy labor now. But balancing high school and a job can be challenging, so most of the work is done in the summer. David Snyder does what he can, including price quotes and presentations, but he said the younger generation does just about everything else.

“He’s very capable,” David Snyder said of his son.

Snyder’s 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, uses her artistic talent to complete the intricate details on stones and statues.

“It’s hard work,” David Snyder said. “But when you come home at night, you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile.”

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