You might say that Sandy Dix helped put Hotchkiss Riverside Cemetery on the map.
The secretary/treasurer of the Riverside Cemetery District, Dix oversaw a yearlong project to GPS and map the cemetery so people can research and locate the graves of their relatives online. The map provides high-resolution aerial photography, overlain with location and address of the graves. Users can search the database by name, or by clicking on a gravesite.
The project also helps to record and preserve the fragile and aging cemetery records.
Since the map went live in September, Dix has received calls from as far away as Canada and Chicago.
She sees the project as a “gift to the community,” made possible through cooperation between the City of Delta, Delta County, the Town of Hotchkiss and the three-member cemetery board.
Board members also contributed knowledge and skills that helped keep project costs low.
Prior to the project, virtually all cemetery records were on paper. Those fragile records were at risk of damage or destruction from the elements and natural disasters and needed to be preserved. After being hired by the district in March 2018, Dix quickly realized their importance. She wants people to understand that each headstone represents a person. Headstones “are not just dates and times and cold biological facts. That person lived.”
Since she can remember, Dix was fascinated by cemeteries. At 13, she wanted to be a writer. She would find interesting headstones, make a rubbing, and research the name on microfiche at the local courthouse. Using the information, she would write a story about the person. The stories never got published, she said, but her love for cemeteries lives on.
“I started searching for databases that could handle all of the logistical and biographical data we had on note cards for each of our residents,” she said.
She found an interactive online map of Boulder County Columbia Cemetery and connected with Christy Spielman with Boulder Parks and Recreation. Spielman was more than willing to give her guidance.
Last August she contacted City of Delta GIS analyst Frank Sargent. He had the know-how, contacts and enthusiasm to help, she said. Using cemetery records, he helped her develop the database that would lay the groundwork for the map. “If it weren’t for Frank, we wouldn’t have a map.”
Caitlin Bernier with Pangaea Geospatial in Gunnison used the database and photos to create the map using the ESRI Argos ArcGIS platform and tie it in with GIS.
Delta County is sharing its software license until 2020 when the cemetery board can purchase its own subscription.
Delta County GIS coordinator Carrie Derco said the map will be very useful to the cemetery. “We are happy that we could host the data and provide a platform for this project,” said Derco.
Dix says they’re not done yet. Lasting Impressions is making street signs for visitors to follow. As new headstones are put in place, she photographs them and posts the images to the map.
The cemetery board would like to do a similar project for the historic upper cemetery. Dix plans to research the faded wooden markers, illegible headstones, and in some cases, rocks and boulders mark to fill in missing information on those buried there.
The board also hopes to obtain a grant for a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) project to identify the locations of all graves in the historic section and ensure that markers have associated remains.
Increased interest in DNA testing makes this kind of project more relevant, said Dix. She doesn’t advocate DNA testing, but when people discover who their ancestors are, they can research them online.
“It’s a really wonderful project, “she said. “But it blossomed into something much bigger.” Working on the project, she said, she learned a lot about the cemetery’s residents. Some stories, like the young soldier with PTSD who committed suicide in his 20s and the single plot with four young girls all from the same family, are tragic. There are also beautiful stories, like the elderly couple who lived a long life together and died within days of one another.
Graves, she said, can also provide healing and allow loved ones to say good-bye. People will leave tokens or sit at a grave and have a beer and a conversation with the person, she said. She recently helped a middle-age man find the grave of his 2-year-old brother who hadn’t returned since he died in his arms when he was 8, an experience that deeply moved her.
The project also benefits kids. They may not grasp the importance of knowing who their ancestors are, but it helps them be better individuals and to better understand their community. As they age, they will become more curious.
The project also honors fallen soldiers, said Dix, some of whom have military headstones. With little information on many of them, Dix hopes to start a research project soon to fill in the blanks.
For these and other reasons, the board needs to keep the cemetery alive and relevant for future generations, she said. “Today, the only way to become relevant is to become digital.”
Dix urges people to visit the website and learn more about their community’s history from those buried there. She also hopes that people will submit personal stories and other information on their loved ones. With family permission, the information can be added to the map.
“If people contribute,” she said, “hopefully it will grow to be so much more relevant and special.”
The cemetery board “believes that our history, our ancestors and our ties to this beautiful land are important,” said Dix. Preserving that history ensures “that the information is at our fingertips and moves with us into the future.”
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