Pushing a converted baby stroller over bumpy Clay County soil on Saturday, Mark DeSchepper squinted at a small black-and-white computer screen.
He was looking for the past.
As he moved his contraption and the $30,000 ground-penetrating radar dangling from it to and fro over a grid, two Boy Scouts trailed, leaving little pink flags where his gizmo detected subterranean irregularities.
It was a bit like borrowing Superman’s X-ray vision to peer eight feet down into the rocky soil to see where in this old Gladstone cemetery there might be forgotten graves.
“We’re not going to be able to tell you who’s down there, whether it’s a man or a woman, or maybe even whether it’s an adult or a child,” said DeSchepper, who works for Construction Solutions of Paola, Kan. “But we should be able to mark the spot.”
As he paced behind the high-tech grave sniffer — put to other uses, it can reveal archeological sites or uncover a forgotten underground tank — dozens of other people moved about Big Shoal Cemetery. It’s a tree-lined spot between Prospect and Brighton avenues off Northeast 64th Street.
They were tackling the painstaking effort to restore what had become a virtually derelict, weed-choked lot back to a cemetery that preserves a little history.
Fifteen-year-old Austin Barker has seized control of the volunteer force that has trimmed the trees, picked up the debris and is now meticulously charting its underground secrets.
Various historical records, obituaries and the like, suggest the hilltop near the historicAtkins-Johnson Farm
is the resting place of 164 people — folks planted in the ground mostly in the area’s early days of white settlement.
Yet only 102 gravesites have been pinpointed. And the identities of even some of the people in those spots remain lost to the generations of weather working on stone and vandals busting up grave markers. The survey under way Saturday figures to be a key step in locating the other graves across the acre or so of rolling ground.
“We’re trying to find the other 62,” Austin said.
The long restoration of Big Shoal began in 2004. And should the ground-penetrating radar find more — a computer analysis of the data later will give the strongest conclusions — they will be noted with metal markers. There are no plans to try to attach names to graves or to exhume remains.
But the cemetery has enough to keep local history buffs interested. Early settlers are here. They include Richard Barnes, who fought in the War of 1812 before heading west to farm. He was buried in 1861. Confederate fighters from the Civil War are in the cemetery as well.
As part of an Eagle Scout project, Austin will oversee the results of the survey and enter the findings atFindAGrave.com.
Melinda Mehaffy, Gladstone’s economic development administrator, said the restoration of the cemetery may eventually cost $15,000 and serve as a small historical attraction.
“You can tell a lot about a community,” she said, “by how it treats the cemetery.”