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BAXTER SPRINGS, KAN. — When he arrived in his pickup Tuesday morning, Jimmy Morton was happy to see someone digging up headstones at the Baxter Springs National Cemetery No. 2 Soldiers’ Lot.
As he walked between the rows, Morton, public works director for Baxter Springs, said, “It’s time for this to get done.”
Morton was referring not to vandalism, but to a federally approved project that, when complete, will give those buried at the second-oldest military cemetery in the nation the respect they deserve, he said.
“There’s been sinking, settling, and some could be pushed over pretty easily,” he said.
It’s not an easy job. A three-man crew toiled in high humidity for about 12 hours Tuesday with hand tools to remove each and every one of the 217 headstones on the acre-and-a-half lot, The Joplin Globe reported.
At about 42 inches in length, 13 inches in width and about three inches thick, each headstone weighs about 100 pounds.
Many have a 7-inch to 10-inch stone collar on the bottom for alignment and height above the ground — there should be no variance in a national cemetery honoring soldiers, Morton explained.
Crew member Tony Ragan, of Tulsa, Okla., demonstrated the use of a 30-pound rock bar — an iron tool much like a crowbar — to wedge the stone collars up out of the earth.
“It’s been a long time since this earth has been disturbed,” Ragan said, as he paused to wipe sweat away from his eyes while working on a particularly stubborn one.
After the Civil War, the federal government designated the soldiers’ lot on ground donated by the city for that purpose. It is under the jurisdiction of National Cemetery No. 1 in Fort Scott. The cemetery is just west of the junction of Highway 166 and Fifth Street at the west edge of Baxter Springs.
In the center of it, an obelisk that towers above the lot was erected in the spring of 1870. The bodies of the victims of the attack on nearby Fort Blair and the Massacre of Baxter Springs were re-interred in a common grave surrounding it. Names of the 88 victims are engraved on the monument.
Surrounding that, the crew focused its attention on the sandstone markers showing where known soldiers were interred. In the first row, known as Section A, the crew reset and realigned headstones for men who lived, fought and died before the turn of the 20th century — such as Luther G. VanFossen, Company H, 1st Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, who died Dec. 6, 1892, and John W. Garman, Company D, 35th Regiment with the Illinois Infantry, who died Dec. 1, 1900.
Crew leader Adam Shiew, with Gateway Outdoor Solutions in St. Louis, said that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration contracts with groups such as his to ensure that gravestones are properly set and aligned at national cemeteries.
He’s been working on a similar project in Fort Gibson, Okla., but on a much larger scale — that 37-acre cemetery has 20,000 stones.
“We’ve done well over 15,000 of them,” he said. “We’ve also done cemeteries in San Antonio (Texas), Lawton (Okla.), a lot of places.”
Having had a grandfather who served in the Navy during World War II and two uncles who also served, Shiew said he feels a responsibility for doing the job right.
“This is a shrine. This is something to really take pride in,” he said of the lot, pausing from his work to lean on a shovel. “They fought for us.”
He added: “I’ve had 80-year-old women come up and hug my neck while I’m on jobs like this and tell me it looks good and what it means to them. They’ll bring me a cold bottle of water, tell me stories of their father or husband or brother. That’s what makes it all worth it.”
For Morton, it’s also personal: His grandfather, George Hartman, who served in World War II, is buried in the soldiers’ lot, which Morton has been taking care of since 1993.
“This is good to see,” he said as he watched the crew work. “Really good to see.”
In August, the ground in the lot will be leveled and sod will be put down. The work will be complete just in time, said local historian Larry O’Neal, for a living history program to be held at the cemetery in October in conjunction with activities at historic Fort Blair.