‘Look what we found’ Group restores 19th century St. Charles County Cemetery, uses QR codes to bring history to life

Out in rural St. Charles County at Black Walnut Cemetery, you can be transformed in time.
Published: Jun. 4, 2023 at 10:30 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Out in rural St. Charles County at Black Walnut Cemetery, you can be transformed in time.

You can find gravestones of long-dead pioneers in Missouri, some even born in the 1700′s, it serves as a peaceful reminder of a simpler time.

“When the sun gets ready to set, you could see these white stones just really light up, and I could sit there on my porch and see that from my house when before it was just a jungle,” said Doug Bauer, who lives nearby.

A restoration was recently done at Black Walnut. Beforehand, it was entirely filled by high tree brush; it was nearly impossible to navigate through.

“You knew it was a cemetery, but you thought it’s well enough left alone. Well, when I seen people really get involved in it, I felt like I wanted to get involved,” said Bauer.

Since 2019, a committed group of volunteers and experts embarked on cleaning out the brush.

“I saw a Facebook post, showed up and stayed for two years. Every weekend,” said Colleen Lefholz.

They aimed to track down the 44 documented headstones.

“I came out to clear the brush, we started finding headstones. I was hooked,” said Tom Lange.

They found most of the documented headstones and then dozens more. Ultimately realizing around 100 souls were buried at the cemetery.

They did that by painstakingly prodding the ground for headstones with a yard tool.

“There’s over a million holes that we poked in this cemetery, but look what we found,” said Lange.

“When you hit something in the ground and you know it’s a tombstone, you go all right. And the work stops, and everybody huddles around, and I mean seriously, with loving care, we bring that thing up,” said Steve Stopke, President of the Black Walnut Cemetery Association.

Everybody buried at the cemetery died in the 19th century, but perhaps the most unique part of the cemetery lies in modern technology.

Visitors can simply scan QR codes on their phones and learn about the life these folks lived, many of whom died as children.

“Never even realized the strife that these people went through, these people lived into their teens, infants, some of them into their 40′s, it’s just life was so hard back then,” said Bauer.

The group used a research team that combed genealogy websites to learn about their lives.

The stories stuck in the volunteers’ heads, including one boy who died of yellow fever around 1840.

“And his family was so traumatized by it, that they moved to St. Charles and left him out here, the gravestone disappeared, and we brought him back,” said Stopke.

Stopke is now in charge of the newly created Black Walnut Cemetery Association, which is seeking to add members to pay bills. They said they can use the money to upkeep the cemetery, while also aiming to make capital improvements.

“This is still a growing project, it’s not done, maybe never will be, but we’re going to try,” said Stopke.

People from all over the country now visit to find a link to their past. Some end up in tears. Almost everybody is thankful for the restoration work done that has turned a forgotten field of overgrown brush, into a proper final home to those that helped build Missouri.

“There’s a Jewish saying that says nobody is ever forgotten if you can remember their name, as soon as we brought something up, their name was again revealed,” said Stopke.