Danny Widman, one of the students involved in "Extreme Makeover: Gravestone Edition" in Seneca, Illinois, cleans up one of the gravestones at a local cemetery. (Photo by Jeff Maierhoffer)

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers across the country have struggled to provide their students with a quality education while ensuring a safe and healthy learning environment.  

In rural Seneca, Illinois, an innovative education program has allowed students to have a safe learning environment while bringing the stories of early pioneers of the community “back to life.”

Agriculture teacher and National Future Farmers of America Organization (FFA) advisor Jeff Maierhofer developed a far-reaching education and community service project for the two 10-member senior agriculture classes at Seneca High School in north-central Illinois. It’s called “Extreme Makeover: Gravestone Edition,” and Maierhofer openly admits this program wouldn’t have happened without the necessity for Covid-19 education restrictions.

While only 70 miles southwest of Chicago, Seneca, with a population of only 2,300 is rural. Located on the Illinois River, Seneca’s early settlers were farmers and Irish immigrants hired to dig the Illinois-Michigan Canal, which connected Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River. The canal and faster railways provided ways to get grain to markets and created a boom to the agrarian community.

The project began when Maierhofer’s son, Levi, working as a groundskeeper at the Mt. Calvary Cemetery, noticed that many of the oldest tombstones were unreadable. Levi, a senior FFA member, mentioned this to his dad. A plan began to develop in the elder Maierhofer’s mind to enable the students to have a socially distanced, outdoor classroom learning experience and provide a meaningful FFA service project for the community. Community service projects are a vital component of the Seneca FFA program.  The chapter has been recognized for its work on a state FFA level. 

A self-proclaimed “history geek,” Maierhofer developed a curriculum using the tombstones in Mt. Calvary and nearby Mt. Hope cemeteries.  Students learned local history, emphasizing local veterans, and farm families while cleaning the oldest, most illegible tombstones.

Student Madison Bromberek works on a gravestone of Loyal Richardson. (Photo by Jeff Maierhoffer)

“I wanted the students to learn about the sociology of early Seneca, who lived there, what war did they fight in, how did they farm, what did they do for a living, who were their family, – not just clean a tombstone,” Maierhofer said.,

How did high school seniors respond to the project? d “When Mr. Maierhofer brought us out to the cemetery, we were very, very skeptical, –but he was so passionate,” Jenna Gosling, one of the seniors participating, said. 

Gosling said that when Maierfhofer showed the students how well the cleaning solution worked, taking the stones from black to gray to white, the students got excited and became honored to be a part of the project.

To clean the stones, Maierhofer located D2, a biological monument and tombstone cleaner specially formulated to remove mold, mildew, lichens, dirt, and other staining substances. To purchase the $60-a-gallon solution and other cleaning supplies, Seneca FFA received the “Living to Serve” grant from the National FFA Foundation.

The cleaning process was as one might imagine; spray the solution, wait a few minutes, scrub and rinse, repeat as necessary, nothing remarkable – except the students brought the early residents “back to life” through the now legible stone and the research to come.

Each student selected a person to research from one of the stones they cleaned.  Students learned that most of the persons no longer had family living in the area. A great deal of their research was done on Ancestory.com.  Following their findings, they wrote a report and presented an oral autobiography of the person while standing by the person’s tombstone.

Alanna Chapman delivers her presentation by the gravestone of Daniel Smith. (Photo by Jeff Maierhoffer)

What were some of their more unique findings? A child who died at age 5 while her father was fighting in the Civil War, a husband and wife who were the only Germans in Seneca and whose son went to Notre Dame and became a pharmacist, brothers who fought in WWI, a professional baseball player and a woman who organized the local Legion Auxiliary and died at the age of 105. But they identified very few farmers.

“The two cemeteries are ‘in town’,” Maierhofer said “As we learned, the early farming pioneers had family plots on their farms.” The chapter has plans to clean one of the earliest farm family plots to continue the project next year.

“This project helped me appreciate how much people care about Seneca. People said thanks for helping find out about their families,” said Alanna Chapman, another student involved in the cleanup and research. “I wasn’t interested in local history until this project, and now I see how important it is to preserve.”

One unique and unforeseen benefit of the project was the national attention the project gained through the chapter’s Facebook page. First posted on September 14, the project has gone viral with nearly 2 million “likes” and comments.

Seneca Superintendent of Schools Jim Carlson described the project as “outstanding” and emphasized how it blended many of the district’s core competencies into one learning experience. “But most importantly, students developing all those skills while providing a benefit to the larger community is simply amazing,” he said.

Maierhoffer noted that most of the students have been in Seneca for only two or three generations and did not grow up with early local history being told around the table. The project helped them learn how the community developed. 

Another important reason for the project is the dwindling number of students who live on farms.

“The number of “farm kids’ that we have are fewer and fewer every year. Sadly, this year’s freshman agriculture classes of 43 students have zero kids that live on a working farm. To me, that’s all the more reason to teach the heritage of this farm community.”

Toni Wilson Riley is a retired Christian County Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent and lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, on a small goat farm.