Marc Blanchette uses a brush to clean moss, lichens and other organic material off of a gravestone in Woodbine Cemetery in Ellsworth recently. Blanchette has done about three dozen such cleanings since earlier this year. PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER

Ellsworth man honors veterans by cleaning their gravestones

ELLSWORTH — If you are ever at Woodbine Cemetery and see a bearded man with glasses and a Navy baseball cap talking to a gravestone, don’t worry — he’s not crazy.

It’s Marc Blanchette pursuing his latest passion: cleaning the gravestones of local veterans and, in the process, rediscovering as much of their stories as he can find and sharing them with others.

In both ways he is helping save the dead from oblivion. He spends enough time doing it that he feels he gets to know the people even though some have been dead for a century or more.

“We can’t forget these people,” he said during a recent work session at Woodbine.

Blanchette uses a wooden skewer to clean out the letters on the gravestone of Abraham Sargent Jr.

Blanchette’s mission began back in May with someone he will never forget: Michael Davis, his childhood friend who was killed in a plane crash in 1982 while in the Navy. Davis served on the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Blanchette’s hat bears the carrier’s name and ship number.

Davis’s family still tends to his stone, but Blanchette wanted to beautify it a bit more. Through Facebook he knew of a Florida resident named Andrew Lumish who cleans gravestones (Lumish goes by “The Good Cemeterian” online) and knew what he needed: a biological cleaner called D/2.

Blanchette went to Bangor, got a gallon of D/2 at A.H. Harris and came back to touch-up Davis’s stone. He was pleased with how it turned out, but when he was done he still had most of the gallon left. What to do?

As he drove around Woodbine, he realized his friend Michael was not alone in having served the nation. Blanchette stopped at a random gravestone, that of Civil War veteran David Denico Jr., who died in 1862 while serving in Company G of the 8th Maine Volunteer Infantry.

“For no particular reason, I picked David’s stone,” Blanchette said. “It was dirty. I started cleaning him, and it’s just evolved from there.”

Since starting in May Blanchette estimated he has cleaned about three dozen stones. Though not all were veterans, most of them are. Blanchette said that is in recognition of their service and their sacrifice.

“Dammit, these guys did what a lot of people wouldn’t do,” he said. “And a lot of these guys, like Michael, gave it their all.”

And indeed they did. There is Lt. George Grant, who served in Company C of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery and died in May of 1864 at the age of 25 from wounds sustained in battle. George is buried alongside his older brother Jabez, who died a decade earlier at the age of 25 when he was lost at sea.

Charles Royal served in the 6th Maine Infantry and died at the end of 1862 from battle injuries, likely sustained during the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. Others died in captivity: Pvt. John A. Howard died in Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., at the end of the war in 1865, while another man died in the infamous Andersonville camp in Georgia.

Other people lived and died more recently and Blanchette had the opportunity to know them personally. Take, for example, Thomas M. Jordan, better known as Tommy, who was an Ellsworth police officer (not to be confused with another officer by the same name who is still alive today — the department distinguished between the two by using “Old Tommy” and “Young Tommy”).

Blanchette described the older Tommy Jordan, who died in 1998, as a prankster and one of the funniest people he ever met. Blanchette did not know Jordan was a veteran — he served two years in the Navy as a fireman — until he decided to clean Jordan’s stone. When he did, Blanchette said he heard a voice call out to him.

Blanchette sprays D/2, a biological cleaning agent, onto a stone. He lets the cleaner sit on the stone for 10 to 15 minutes, then comes back with soft-bristled brushes to get organic material off the stone.

“‘For God’s sake, Blanchette, where the hell have you been?’” he recalled hearing the voice of Jordan ask. “‘My stone is filthy — come clean me!’”

The detailed stories for people who have been dead for a longer time comes from and what Blanchette calls “Dr. Google.” For those who died more recently, Blanchette will sometimes reach out to family members still in the area to help tell their stories. The information he learns (plus photos of his cleaning work) is then posted and shared on the Growing Up In Ellsworth Facebook page, where his labors have earned gratitude and appreciation from others.

Blanchette has received help in his endeavor from Barbara Courchesne and her crew at The Bud Connection in downtown Ellsworth. The shop provides him with a long-stem, yellow carnation to place on each stone that he cleans. Others have given him money to help cover the cost of cleaning supplies.

The D/2 cleaner Blanchette uses is expensive (it costs about $40 a gallon) but is safe for the stones, for Blanchette and for the ground. He grimaces when he lists off things that people should never use to clean stones: bleach, pressure washers (which are often used in combination with a water-and-bleach solution) or Comet or any other abrasive cleaners.

Any of those methods may make the stone look good in the short term, he said, but will do permanent damage to the stones. Marble is particularly susceptible to such damage because it is more porous than granite and easily absorbs the harsh cleaners.

Blanchette’s list of approved tools, for anyone looking to do such work on their own, is short and simple: D/2, soft-bristled nylon brushes, water and time. Each round of D/2 cleaner must be given 10 to 15 minutes to work, and Blanchette will come back weeks later on a hard-to-clean stone to improve it.

The transformation of some stones from dark and stained to almost snow white is impressive to see, and Blanchette said the decision to do the work was an easy one.

“It just needed to be done,” he said.

Blanchette is planning on doing a big Facebook posting of 11 veterans’ stones on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. The number recognizes the historical significance of the day that originally marked the end of World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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