When Olivia Mickalonis looks at the grass, weeds and fallen tree limbs covering most of the approximately 35,000 headstones at Magnolia Cemetery, she is reminded of how much work needs to be done.
Having had a career in landscaping for 17 years before accepting the job as the operations manager of Public Works Augusta-Richmond County Trees and Landscaping, she sees its potential and doesn't get discouraged.
"It's really beautiful," she said of the cemetery along Third Street that stretches across 65 acres and has 15 streets lined with hundreds of magnolia trees.
Established in 1817, the cemetery is the resting place for seven Confederate generals and several Augusta mayors, governors and other politicians and officials.
Only about 35 funerals are conducted each year at the cemetery, said Jerry Murphy, the records clerk for Trees and Landscaping. Lots in the cemetery sold out by the 1970s, he said.
Mrs. Mickalonis said it's a shame people haven't treated it better - a reason the staff are working to preserve its history.
"I don't think people realize the historical importance here. People just drive by and toss empty bottles over the wall," she said.
Under one preservation plan, the Magnolia Maintenance Program, the cemetery would be divided into sections and cleaned one section at a time. Mrs. Mickalonis said she puts on work boots and joins her staff of five, helping cut the grass, cut and remove dead tree limbs and clean headstones.
"We only have six people for 65 acres, and if there's a funeral we have less, so I feel helping is the only way to win over my staff's support - I need to be out there in it," she said. "There were areas where you couldn't see the walls. Thick branches were hanging down, grass was two feet tall. We're just trying to open the area so it doesn't look so foreboding."
One woman, who would keep her family's plot cleaned but feared being bitten by a snake trying to walk to it, was affectedby the cleaned area, Mrs. Mickalonis said.
"She was in tears, she was so happy, so thankful for what we're doing," she said. "I tell my staff to treat each grave as if it's a member of your own family."
Another preservation project is using volunteers to transfer information on the deceased from index cards to a computer. Her final project is installing a global imaging system that will give an exact location of each grave so people can eventually locate dead relatives online, Mrs. Mickalonis said.
She considers the preservation efforts essential.
"We get about 50 people a year who want to tour the cemetery, and we get people in and out of here all day, with the genealogical society or from all over, coming in looking at markers and records for information on past relatives," she said.
Reach C. Samantha McKevie at (706) 823-3552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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