Editor's Note: Gems of the Valley is a regular feature of the The Parkersburg News and Sentinel/The Marietta Times highlighting residents who do wonderful things for the community. Nominations can be sent to 519 Juliana St., Parkersburg WV 26101, faxed to 304-485-5122 or emailed to email@example.com.
VIENNA - For his countless hours of selfless commitment to the restoration and preservation of Wood County's rural - and many times forgotten - cemeteries, Jeff Smith has been nominated as a Gem of the Valley.
"Five or six years ago the Wood County Historical Preservation Society began trying to locate, preserve and maintain the hundreds of burial sites that are to be found throughout Wood County. Jeff was a part of our first meeting and took a real serious interest in what we were attempting," said society president Bob Enoch.
Photo by Pamela Brust
Jeff Smith has been nominated as a Gem of the Valley for his many hours of labor to help preserve and restore rural cemeteries.
Photo by Pamela Brust
This is an example of a replacement marble veteran grave marker Jeff Smith obtained for the final resting place of a Civil War-era soldier.
"He created cemetery videos that were absolutely fantastic," Enoch said of Smith's work. "Since then he has continued to manage the cemeteries in Williams District, the northern Vienna and Williamstown area. He has restored lost cemeteries, ordered new headstones, made new bases for headstones and spends countless hours researching those who are buried there. In the past year or two he has been creating absolutely beautiful name signs for some of these old burying grounds," Enoch said.
"Jeff has been a tremendous help in our efforts and is certainly worthy of recognition."
Smith, a lifelong Vienna resident, said when he was in school he thought history was boring. He didn't see the relevance and he didn't know or care about learning more about his own family history. As he grew older, however, finding his roots became more interesting and he started searching.
"I discovered my third great-grandmother was buried in southern Wood County and I went looking for her, it was difficult to locate her grave. I finally found her in the William Smith cemetery on California Ridge off the north fork of Lee Creek. The cemetery was way back in the woods, very remote," Smith said.
"Her tombstone was laying on the ground broken into three pieces and that broke my heart. Once I saw that I thought no human being who has walked this planet needs to have their final resting place turned in a trash pit, and that's what I found in most of these older cemeteries," he said.
"People are so involved with their own lives to care about those who walked before us, and if it wasn't for those who came before us, we wouldn't have what we have now. They sacrificed a lot," Smith said.
After finding her gravestone in such a state, Smith personally hauled away damaged stones from that cemetery one at a time. Since the cemetery was only accessible by foot, he had to bring them out without the aid of any equipment. He repaired and cleaned them at his residence then returned them to their rightful place in better condition than he found them.
Smith said he also discovered his great-grandfather, Elijah from Roane County who fought for the Confederacy. He was in the 30th Virginia Battalion Sharpshooters.
"He fought on skirmish lines, drove wagons, he was a private. At the Battle of Winchester, he was taken prisoner by cavalry of Gen. George Custer. I didn't know any of that, and neither did many of other family members. He was pardoned by Abraham Lincoln after signing a letter of allegiance to the Union. He had been imprisoned at Port Lookout, Md.," Smith said.
A Vietnam veteran having served in the Air Force, Smith shows his respect for soldiers by repairing and replacing broken, missing or damaged stones on the gravesites of Civil War soldiers that he's found, with white marble markers. A lot of people don't know the rounded stones were for the Union, the ones with the peak were for the Confederate soldiers, he said.
He is even planning to right a wrong local soldier, who actually served in the Union Army as his grave, through some kind of mixup at the time of his burial, is marked identifying him as s Confederate soldier.
When he first got involved with the Hiett cemeteries in Vienna, they were literally covered with sumac, Smith said.
"You couldn't even walk in," he said. "These cemeteries take a lot of ongoing maintenance, mowing, upkeep."
Over the years at Hiett, Smith said the neighboring VFW post, Vienna Mayor Randy Rapp, the Rural Cemetery Alliance committee members and others have assisted with the cleanup and maintenance.
"The stones settle over time, fall over and break. I've actually been able to find some buried stones in some cemeteries that fell over long ago. I probe the ground in areas where there is supposed to be a stone," he said.
Smith takes the time to look up the history behind some of the grave markers.
"That stone over there belongs to a young man who drowned in the Ohio River," he said pointing at a headstone with an anchor on it.
The Hietts were among the first families in northern Vienna and Smith noted there are other early pioneers buried in that cemetery as well.
In the Hiett cemetery there is also a tombstone for a woman who passed away shortly after giving birth. The stone had fallen into disrepair, and he found it in two pieces. Smith righted the stone and repaired it. The woman who is buried there had a great-granddaughter who went on to help found the biomedical library at the University of California in Los Angeles which is now named after that great-granddaughter.
"That's what makes our history so important, you have no idea what kind of contribution later generations might make. We need to take care of our ancestors," Smith said.
Smith is a member of both the Wood County and Roane County Historical Societies.
The Harkins Cemetery, located off Ridge Road in Vienna, has also been under the watchful eye and tender care of Smith. He has erected several marble stones for vets buried there and the tombstones of his German immigrant third generation great grandparents, named Seitz, are located there inside an iron fence.
Smith places flowers on the graves when no family is around, puts flags on gravesites of vets. He has researched stone maintenance, repair and even builds bases for some of the headstones if needed.
Smith is retired from Pitney Bowes, and when he's not saving cemeteries, he enjoys woodworking.