On Halloween 1997, a freak storm with 100 mph winds ripped through Breckenridge’s Valley Brook Cemetery, causing gravestones and hundreds of lodgepole pines to break and topple over. Nearly 16 years after the storm, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and town of Breckenridge continue preservation efforts at the historic cemetery.
This week, David Via, a monument conservator from Virginia, will resume the gravestone conservation and maintenance work he started in 2001. Via said the type of work he does depends on what’s needed for each individual gravesite.
“Sometimes, it’s monuments; sometimes, in this case, an iron fence,” he said, indicating a site with leaning fence posts and sagging chains. “We do an assessment of what is wrong and then formulate a plan to make it right. Two of these posts have been pushed or settled out of plumb (over) time, so in this case, this chain, which is part of the original structure, is on the ground, in the ground, and rusting away.”
Via has done stonework for nearly 40 years, having restored historic gravestones in 20 states, including Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah, Ga.; President James Madison’s family cemetery in Orange County, Va.; and Columbia Cemetery in Boulder.
“It evolved out of doing stonework and being interested in doing repair work and preservation,” Via said. “So this line of work grew out of stonework, building fireplaces, walls, in the beginning, then being interested in repair work, preservation masonry, historical mortars, historical brickwork, so the opportunity came along to do some of this work.”
Via and retired aerospace engineer Jack R. Box, who apprenticed with Via and was hired to help him with this project, have returned to Valley Brook frequently over the past 12 years. They come out for two or three weeks each summer to assess and repair gravesites.
“(The monument is) often leaning or falling or fallen, so we would disassemble it and reset the foundation block level, and then we oftentimes add stainless steel pins, drill holes and add pins if it didn’t have one, to make it safe and secure,” Via said. “Sometimes we’re making the monuments safe for themselves so they don’t deteriorate more or break in case they fell, and sometimes we make them safe for people so they aren’t loose and could cause bodily harm if someone touched it and it fell over. It really evolved to safety first and cosmetic lastly.”
The two men repair broken headstones, when necessary, but Via said he could count the broken stones they have found in Valley Brook on less than one hand. Most of the work done is resetting and securing the stones and repairing the ironwork fences around the sites.
“One of the purposes in conservation — which is what we are doing, we’re not doing restoration — is to let the monument last as long as possible,” Via said. “We’re not making it like brand new; we’re helping it last in the form that it is in a high state of preservation. And everything that we do, we have an idea that we’d like for it to last at least 100 years. So we choose materials, techniques that are going to be long lasting and use traditional techniques and tools wherever possible.”
History in headstones
Valley Brook Cemetery dates to 1882, and its gravestones tell the stories of some of Breckenridge’s earliest residents and the hardships they faced. Like many mountain communities in the West, Breckenridge suffered the deaths of numerous children and young miners. Illnesses also ravaged the community. Visitors to Valley Brook will see that a large percentage of people were laid to rest in the year 1918, the year that an epidemic flu swept through Breckenridge.
In response to the ’97 storm that caused extensive damage, the community sought funds from the State Historical Fund to create a preservation master plan for the cemetery. To date, the town has contributed more than $200,000 to the preservation of Valley Brook, and additional money is budgeted this year for the conservation of historic gravestones.
Each preservation project at the cemetery is a new challenge.
“What are we going to do?” Via said he asks himself as he approaches each gravesite. “I’ve never seen this before; every one is different. Sometimes markers have concrete, it looks really simple to do a repair, and next thing you know, you have this complication.”
Both men described the more difficult projects they have faced.
“I was thinking about three that were natural stone,” Via said. “It was a poor quality piece of stone to begin with and they are deteriorating quickly. Some carved stone lasts indefinitely, and there are a few pieces that just aren’t going to last all that long.”
“I’d almost say the iron, the ironwork,” Box said, just as he dug to the bottom of one of the fence posts to find an additional crossbar jutting out to one side — complications. “And I suspect there were two or three monuments that were so eroded that they were placed on sandstone with lead embedded brackets.”
Box said preserving historic monuments is the most rewarding work they do.
“For many years, I’ve loved this work,” Via said. “I’ve been completely and totally immersed in it. I’ve been doing it since 1990 and cemetery work and stonework preservation since 1975. The most rewarding has been when I’m working for individual clients and there’s a personal connection.”
Valley Brook Cemetery is not a perpetual-care cemetery, meaning that families and citizens from all over Summit County and the United States care for individual gravesites. Volunteer stewards and town staff continue to maintain the natural, park-like setting of the cemetery year round, and Via returns frequently to continue his work.
“Valley Brook is unique in many ways, and it’s because of its setting and the monuments and the site is extremely well preserved, in part because it’s been left alone,” Via said. “No attempts have ever been made to irrigate, it’s not been over managed. People bury their family dead and it’s left alone, so it’s in a very natural state, which I think is great, it’s wonderful, it’s an attribute. There’s a lot to be said for leaving it alone.”