FAIRBURY — A 21st century GPS device resting atop a tombstone from the 19th century connects with a satellite orbiting more than 12,000 miles above the Earth so high school students can map the grave's location.
This joining of space-age technology with the past is all part of an ongoing project involving Prairie Central High School students in Andrew Quain's Human Geography class. Their mission: to map locations and record other information from graves in all 21 cemeteries in the school district.
“I've always been so impressed by students at Prairie Central,” said Quain. “I wanted to do something lasting” that wouldn't be tossed out at the end of the school year.
He got the idea for the cemetery mapping project after Roger McDowell of the Fairbury Veterans of Foreign Wars approached him about finding veterans' gravestones that were in need of repair. Quain figured that if the students were going to be walking through the cemeteries looking for damaged gravestones, they might as well map all of them.
This is the fourth year of the project. Students have mapped more than 13,000 graves in eight cemeteries. They are working on four cemeteries this semester.
Prairie Central serves the communities of Chatsworth, Cropsey, Fairbury, Forrest, Strawn and Wing in southern Livingston County and Chenoa in northern McLean County.
“Students are proud of it. It has lasting power. The community loves it,” said Quain. “It's been really rewarding for all.”
Sophomore Abby Bergstralh of Fairbury said, “It actually feels really good” doing a project that helps the community.
“It's hard to read the old graves. It takes more time,” she said. But Bergstralh said she has learned “don't get frustrated.”
Cameron Vinyard, another sophomore from Fairbury, said the cemetery looked bigger when he saw it on Google Maps, and he was surprised by how close together the graves are. That wasn't the only surprise.
“I didn't know this place existed and I live 5 miles from here,” he said after recording the location of another grave.
Quain said the students have located about 40 gravestones in need of repair so far — and “we've found veterans from just about every American conflict,” including the Spanish-American War.
Among the graves in Avoca Cemetery are those of William McDowell, a veteran of the War of 1812 who was born in 1785 and died in 1834, and Civil War veteran J.C. Crull of Co. 3, 178 Illinois Infantry.
One of the more recent graves is of Army veteran Jerry Leonard Fairley, a Purple Heart recipient who served in the Vietnam War and died this year.
The project fits with one of the learning standards, “using self-collected data to make maps,” explained Quain. Students also do a geographical analysis of the cemetery, and each student researches a person buried there, he added.
“One of the goals every teacher has is self-motivated students,” said Quain.
That hasn't been a problem with this class, he said. As soon as the school bus pulls up, students get out and quickly get to work. Many go beyond what's required.
Quain cited the example of a student who found a gravestone with German words on it. The student remembered his math teacher had mentioned she spoke German, so he asked her to translate it for him.
Some students have even found the graves of “family members they didn't know and started asking their parents questions” to learn more of their history.
As students were taking satellite measurements last week, one stopped to carefully clear away some overgrown vegetation on the edges of a gravestone.
In addition to Avoca Cemetery, this fall's students are mapping Germanville, Payne and Spence cemeteries. The information is recorded on a spreadsheet that can be searched by people doing genealogy research or looking for family members.
The school's website says, “Our hope is to preserve the history of this area and share it with the generations to come."