Interview with Maggie Rail
By Steve Johnson, March 8, 2000
The Cemetery Column takes some time out to speak with one of
today's most active and most eager of cemetery recordists, Maggie
The emergence of the Internet has without a doubt heightened the
interest of genealogy and local history. And with that interest
comes an awareness of how important cemetery recording is to genealogists
and local historians. If Cemetery Recording has its "stars", Maggie
Rail would be among them.
Having recorded some 70 cemeteries in Eastern Washington State,
she has provided valuable information for others who would not have
been able to obtain otherwise. Maggie is a member of the Washington
State Cemetery Association, and is an assistant editor with Cemetery
Records Online and the WAGenWeb Archives.
Steve: How did you develop your interest in recording cemeteries?
Maggie: I became interested after meeting Bud Engelhardt,
who had completed a few and placed them on GenWeb. I asked him how
to do it. I said to him, "Oh my, you mean go to the cemetery and
copy all the headstones?" . Of course he tells me yes. I said to
myself, "There is no way you will see me out in a cemetery doing
that, I will have to find an easier way. I will find printed matter
and copy it at home."
Steve: How did you start your first cemetery recording?
Maggie: My first try was getting permission from Nona Hengen
to use the list in her book "Gateway to the Palouse, 4th Edition",
which had Spangle Cemetery in it through the year of 1993. I was
interested in it since that is where Great Grandma & Great Grandpa
Wilson are buried.
|Maggie, photo taken about 10 years ago.
Steve: How many cemeteries have you completed?
Maggie: I really do not know how many I have completed.
I keep getting mixed up when I try to count them. I think it is
about 70, I have actually walked and read, in different counties
of Washington plus 7 cemeteries in Idaho. I have done up a couple
dozen of the cemeteries which no longer exist from records recorded
by others previous to me, in addition to the ones I did a physical
survey of. For a few I acquired information from the Reclamation
Department of the State of Washington. These are the "underwater
cemeteries" or those that were moved before the raising of the Columbia
River when Grand Coulee Dam was built.
Steve: How did you go about locating all the cemeteries
in Eastern Washington?
Maggie: I got on the phone to see if I could find all the
local cemeteries, phoning dozens of people, not knowing at the time
what I was doing; sometimes I still think I don't, (plus I know
one person who swears I don't). I later purchased the Eastern Washington
Genealogical Society's three books which included the readings of
the Rural Cemeteries of Spokane County in the early 1960s. A local
historical society can be of help and sometimes the local library.
I had the help of a local historian, Helen Boots, with some. I discovered
I could phone the local funeral home to locate some, which I didn't
know at first and felt rather silly I had not thought of it myself.
It only works for cemeteries still in use however.
Steve: Do you contact county agencies for records?
Maggie: That doesn't work for me. Here in Spokane County,
I have tried three different times. Each department would send me
to a different department and no one knows where they are. However
if you have a name, they somehow know how to look the name up for
you. My advice to any cemetery association is to never give the
records to the county if you can help it. The records get lost and
the cemetery is never taken care of, from my vista point.
Steve: What kind of tools and equipment do you use?
Maggie: I have a briefcase with several notebooks and lots
of pencils or ballpoint pens and something to brush the headstone
off if it's covered with moss, all kept at hand to be placed in
the trunk of my car on a moment's notice. I found later that my
hands worked about as good as anything to make the lettering readable
on a headstone. I was told I would harm the headstones if I used
a metal tool, so I got this small plastic brush, but I left it on
a headstone in a Colville, Washington cemetery.
Steve: Do you use any camera equipment?
Maggie: I tried my Video camera, which is faster at the
cemetery if you have enough batteries. I had three and could never
stay more than a couple of hours. I found it much harder to scroll
through the videos to check on my errors than to have them in a
folder. I heard about taking digital photos. I suspect it will be
the same. I will try it, but the method of writing seems to be the
best for me. Just today I had to go look one up for someone. I was
so glad it was one I had in a notebook, since I no longer have the
videos. I will admit, you have a better proof of what the headstone
said, with the photo; it is human to err when copying.
Steve: How do you do any pre-planning before visiting a
Maggie: If it is far away from where I live, I rent a motel
and stay till I am finished. For those in driving distance, this
is not necessary. In the future I may have to stay more, since the
perimeter of unread cemeteries is getting farther from my home.
When reading the ones in Idaho, I visit and stay with my friend
in Troy. Maybe I will have her doing it one of these days.
|Maggie, on the left, receiving an award from the DAR for her
Steve: How do you organize your transcriptions?
Maggie: I file each cemetery separately in it's own folder,
or section of a folder when they are small and can go with others
in their county. I use those cheap Peechee like covers that have
the three metal holders in them that fold over. This way I can use
any notebook I have and sort them into folders later.
Steve: You've developed a "name" for yourself among the
locals. How did that come about?
Maggie: I became known to a few people from all the phoning
and my trips to the cemeteries. I phoned a newspaper reporter to
find out the phone number for the Sexton of a cemetery they did
a feature article on. It turned out that the reporter was interviewing
me instead. Before I knew it she was out with a photographer with
me at one of the cemeteries I was working on. I did get the information
I was after however. Later another paper did a feature on cemeteries
also, so they also did an article on the work I was doing. From
this I am now called the "Cemetery Lady" by some or "Graveyard Guru"
Steve: Recording cemeteries seems to be a hobby without
a proper name. What do you call it?
Maggie: I have been told to say I "Read" the cemetery or
I "Walked" the cemetery, then someone says I did a "Survey" of the
cemetery, and last I heard it was supposed to be that I "Inventoried"
the cemetery. Whatever one chooses to call it.
Steve: What kind of advice would you give to other cemetery
Maggie: Do plan to get as complete a record as you can get
after you have visited the cemetery. I think it is very wise to
go to the local library or historical society, or both, and see
if someone before you read it.
There will be many headstones that no longer exist, or sometimes
there never was a headstone. It is beneficial to see if a Sexton
is available. Usually you can go there and copy from their books
or get a copy of the records from them. After collecting all this
you can combine it for the most complete record possible. I suggest
you offer to pay for any records you receive because some of them
just cannot afford to provide it for you. All of this is very time
consuming, but worth it. I find I go over the file at least three
times. The most disturbing part about this is that I find a mistake
everytime I go back over it. I will always be frustrated about that!
Steve: What plans do you have for the rest of 2000?
Maggie: Spring is around the corner and I am getting anxious
to get out and scout out some new ones. I do have to drive further
now that Spokane County is nearly finished. The larger cemeteries
are not completed, but I could not live long enough to read those.
Hopefully we will be able to get computer files of those when they
finish entering them. Last count they were in the R's. Then there
remains the problem of converting them to a file we can use on the
web from the cemetery program they all use.
Steve: What are some of the other things that keep you busy?
Maggie: Sewing, music and my plants and the garden are the
main things. I still have my own home and do majority of the upkeep.
I love keeping my yard up, mowing the lawn. Especially enjoy my
vegetable garden and flowers. I have 38 tuberous begonias starting
right now, to be ready for the yard when the weather allows. I also
have about 100 African Violet plants. Here in Spokane, we still
had snow yesterday, though it melted immediately. The other plants
starting are in my garage.
Steve: How long have you been recording cemeteries?
Maggie: I have only been doing this for about 2 years and
I still enjoy it. Doing a few has led me to wanting to see many
more cemeteries on the Internet to help others with their family
search. Therefore my interest is to help get them posted. I am retired
and have the time, though my house says otherwise. I say this is
much more fun.
- Steve Johnson
Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and Webmaster
of Cemetery Records Online.
All of Maggie's cemetery recordings, along with photographs,
can be accessed from the Washington
Index and Idaho
Index at Cemetery Records Online.