Restoration work under way on Ute Cemetery tombstones | AspenTimes.com

Restoration work under way on Ute Cemetery tombstones

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

With broken headstones surrounding them, Jose "Dude" Sintas, left, and Brian "BG" Gesick of Norman's Memorial out of Greeley work on finding the grave boundaries of the Civil War veterans buried at Ute Cemetery Wednesday afternoon August 14, 2002. The sites and headstones are undergoing rehabilitation as those headstones which are broken will be removed, fixed and then cleaned and those in good shape will be cleaned. Paul Conrad photo.

Tombstone restoration is under way at Aspen’s historic Ute Cemetery.

With chemical cleaning, sanding and some sturdy epoxy work, two rows of Civil War veterans’ graves should be restored in time for a Nov. 11 Veterans’ Day ceremony at the site.

The cemetery, which dates to 1880 and was abandoned in the 1930s, occupies a quiet plot of land on the east side of Aspen. The site was named to the National Register of Historic Places this spring.

Over time, aspen trees and service berry bushes have reclaimed the land, and most grave site markers have toppled due to nature or vandalism.

A historic preservation plan, prepared by Tatanka Historical Associates of Fort Collins, is gradually coming to fruition this summer. Volunteers have already worked on cleaning up existing trails through the cemetery and removing vegetation that was threatening gravestones.

The restoration of gravestones is being completed by Greeley-based Norman’s Memorials. Co-owner Ron Cobb said the more dilapidated, crumbled stones will have to be taken to his workshop in Greeley for repair, while other stones can be cleaned on site.

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Cobb said the marble monuments are more fragile than granite markers in the cemetery, since the rock can often be quite porous. Moisture that enters the stones’ pores weathers the stone quickly during freezing and thawing.

Two-part resins and fillers will be used to piece the stones back together, although Cobb said ultimately the gravestones will look glued together, rather than brand-new.

“Restoration is more painstaking and time-consuming, and it actually costs more than buying a new stone,” he said. “But some of the pieces are in really nice shape – the hard pieces of marble. I was surprised at what good shape a few gravestones are in.”

Ron Sladek, president of Tatanka Historical Associates, pointed out a marble gravestone that had retained its rare, polished-marble surface from 1886, simply because the underbrush and its positioning protected it from the effects of weather.

As for tombstones that remain in one piece but are plagued with lichen and tree sap, Cobb said nonacidic fluoride salts bond to dirt and minerals and rinse out completely with water. A pitted surface might remain beneath the lichen, and that surface may collect dirt easily, but Cobb said there is no way to avoid the effects of dirt over time.

Granite stones can be completely cleaned with chemicals, and polished surfaces can be simply scraped with razor blades, he said.

Sladek said Ute Cemetery was primarily the resting place for the working class and paupers of Aspen.

“In putting together biographies [of the people buried in the cemetery], I haven’t found one mine owner, a business owner or mayor,” he said. “There are some mail carriers, carpenters, miners, brick layers, wives and children. Some people were killed in avalanches and mining accidents.”

The biographies Sladek has researched will be used in a walking tour brochure for the cemetery, including information on how to find unmarked graves. Sladek has located 210 graves in the cemetery so far, but only 69 are marked. He has researched 125 names of people buried in the cemetery.

The cemetery, at the east end of Ute Avenue near Ute Spring, was deemed Aspen’s place for burial in 1881 on Charles A. Hallam’s land. Colonel Kirby, one of the first prospectors to reach the Roaring Fork Valley, was buried on the plot in 1880.

But Kirby no longer rests in the Ute Cemetery. In 1881 his body was exhumed to be reburied in Texas, his home state. Sladek pointed out a recess in the ground with an adjoining mound that might indicate where Kirby’s body once rested.

“I don’t know of any other people that were exhumed from this cemetery, and that open grave looks pretty old,” he said.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]