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210 Pittsboro Street, Campus Box 6210
Chapel Hill, NC  27599-6210
(919) 962-2091   FAX: (919) 962-2279


For immediate use Nov. 10, 1998 -- No. 836

Burial site of UNC’s founder gets much-needed facelift

UNC-CH News Services

WAXHAW, S.C. -- Preserving an old cemetery is a lot like loving someone. Offer too much love and you can stunt one’s personality and growth. Offer too little, and watch it slowly decay from want.

Striking a fine balance between loving old cemeteries too much and too little is what Dean Ruedrich, a historic preservationist, does for a living.

Ruedrich, who founded Ruedrich Restorations in Franklin County, was hired this summer by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to preserve the gravesite of its founder, William Richardson Davie.

Davie and several relatives are buried in Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church cemetery in Waxhaw, S.C., about seven miles north of Lancaster between S.C. Highway 521 and the Catawba River. Waxhaw is where Davie grew up after he emigrated as a young boy from England with his parents.

Old Waxhaw Presbyterian was founded in 1750 by Davie’s uncle, William Richardson, for whom he was named. Davie was supposed to follow his uncle into the ministry, but instead pursued law and became one of North Carolina’s greatest statesmen: Revolutionary War general and hero, framer of the U.S. Constitution, state legislator, governor and French emissary.

Perhaps most importantly, at least to her alumni, Davie founded the University of North Carolina and laid the cornerstone of Old East, the oldest state university building in the country. The stone he guided into place still supports the popular residence hall today.

It was to Waxhaw and his beloved family estate, Tivoli, that Davie retired after he became disenchanted with the direction national and state politics were taking under President Thomas Jefferson. When he died in 1820, he was buried in the church’s cemetery.

In 1927, a wealthy distant relative in New York decided the burial site did not fit such an esteemed historical figure, so he moved the family’s graves to a specially constructed enclave at the far end of the cemetery. The relation also gave the university $1,000 -- a significant sum back then -- to invest and use to maintain the compound.

That brings the story to Ruedrich, whom university officials hired after being alerted by Nancy Crockett that time was taking a toll on the graves and something significant needed to be done. Besides having historical and emotional ties to Carolina, the cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Crockett, a retired history teacher and principal, is a trustee at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian and has served as the cemetery’s caretaker since 1947. Devoted to her church, Crockett revels in sharing its history, such as how President Andrew Jackson was baptized there and how his mother is buried there. Crockett was honored for her caretaking by Chancellor Paul Hardin during the university’s Bicentennial Observance. An offshoot of the famous Davie Poplar now grows in front of the Davie enclave.

The large, cross-shaped Davie enclave consists of a thick, brick wall about five feet high with a wrought-iron gate at one end. Davie is buried there along with his parents and uncle, two sons and a granddaughter. His tomb, at the end, is by far the most ornate. It is a tabletop tomb with columns, set up on a tile base. The wall rises up behind the tomb, as if "framing" a picture.

The elements have weathered the inscription on Davie’s tomb, which reads, in part, "Soldier, jurist, statesman and Patriot . . . polished in manners, firm in act, candid without impudence, wise above deceit; a true lover of his country . . . a Great Man in an age of Great Men."

The stone vaults were crumbling and water had seeped into crevices, causing the sides to chip and flake off. Hurricane Fran damaged the enclave, as had vandals. The gate was damaged some time ago; looking for an explanation, Ruedrich said he thought someone accidentally backed a car into it.

Ruedrich, who restored the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and the Old Burying Grounds in Beaufort, has lots of experience tending to gravesites. The secret to preserving them, he said, is to accept what they have become and not force them to be what they are not.

To love them, but not too much.

"When you go into a cemetery this old, the stones shouldn’t look like they were all carved yesterday," he said. "You should do the gentlest work possible for conservation and preservation, rather than restoration."

Pointing to one of his workers cleaning Davie’s headstone, Ruedrich said, "here, we’re using ammonia and water. Some people might wonder why we don’t sandblast the letters. Sandblasting may make the stones look cleaner at first, but it actually speeds up deterioration because you’re removing a layer of stone each time. After three sandblastings, you can’t read the letters anymore. They’re gone."

Guiding a visitor through the enclave, Ruedrich related the grave’s architectural history while describing how he planned to preserve the site.

Davie’s tabletop tomb -- "it is really quite remarkable," Ruedrich said -- was a fad among burials during the mid-19th century. Most cemetery visitors seeing tabletop tombs today mistakenly assume that the person is buried within the structure, above the ground. That’s not the case, he said. The tombs are strictly ornamental.

"The people are buried in the ground, underneath the box tomb," Ruedrich said. "Yet half the box tombs I’ve worked on have had their tops taken off by curiosity-seekers looking for a body. So the more people who understand that no one is buried in there, the better off we’ll be."

Materials and labor for the restoration cost $19,000, about $10,000 of which came from the money donated to the university in 1927 by Davie’s relative. The other $9,000 came from private donations. Dr. J. Dewey Dorsett, a Charlotte physician and member of the class of 1947, is leading an additional effort to raise money to buy ornamental trees and bushes for the compound.

At some point years ago, someone hired by the university tried to repair water damage to the Davie gravesite, yet only made the problem worse, according to Ruedrich. The tombs and headstones in the enclave are made from limestone and soapstone, soft and porous stones that contract and expand.

Good mortar between soft stone is supposed to absorb pressure created when the stone naturally expands and contracts. In this case, Ruedrich said, someone used a mortar that was much stronger than the limestone, essentially binding the limestone into place and not giving it freedom to move. With no where to "go," the limestone turned the pressure within itself and cracked.

"Some people working on old stone make the mistake of using portland cement and I’m here to tell you it’s bad for old brick and it’s bad for old stone," he said.

Ruedrich cut cracked and damaged stone and crumbling mortar down to its solid and stable inner layer, then used a special patching mortar made in England that matched the limestone’s texture, color and porosity.

"So what we’re putting in will not only match the stone’s physical characteristics, but it will react like the stone itself," he said. "It will absorb the same, and contract and expand the same. It may take some time, but eventually it will look exactly the same, like it was quarried together."

One of the characteristics Ruedrich likes best about cemeteries is the patina of old stones: the nicks along the edges, the discoloration from time. Patina is rather like the wrinkles on the face of a beloved grandmother -- evidence of the love, laughter and tears expressed through the years.

"The things that only age can make," he said.

Ruedrich also found the Davie enclave fascinating from another perspective. Davie was a devoted Free Mason, which the architect who designed the enclave apparently knew because it shows traits typical of a Masonic lodge. Free Mason lodge rooms are closed on the north end and open to the south; so is the Davie enclave. Lodge rooms have checked floors. Davie’s tomb is the only one in the enclave that sits on a checked, tile base.

"There are just some interesting similarities," he said.

Ruedrich started restoring antiques in college and later bought an old home in Franklin County that he restored. He began working on old cemeteries about nine years ago.

There aren’t many people in his line of work. Sadder still, Ruedrich said, the general public lacks an interest in cemeteries and the stories and history buried there.

"The lack of interest is a real tragedy," he said. "We’re responsible for caring for these places and we need to pay a little more respect to what people have left us. I’ve walked through too many cemeteries that have been completely neglected despite being surrounded by descendents."

People interested in contributing toward landscaping or general upkeep of the Davie Memorial may send contributions to the Carolina Annual Fund, P.O. Box 309, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514-0309. Be sure to write "Davie Memorial Fund" on the check.

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Note to media: Photos of Ruedrich are available upon request.   For electronic versions, prints or a disk, call Dan Sears at 919-962-8592.

News Services contact: Karen Stinneford, 919-962-8415