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Interview with Maggie Rail

By Steve Johnson, March 8, 2000

The Cemetery Column takes some time out to speak with one of today's most active and most eager of cemetery recordists, Maggie Rail.

The emergence of the Internet has without a doubt heightened the interest of genealogy and local history. And with that interest comes an awareness of how important cemetery recording is to genealogists and local historians. If Cemetery Recording has its "stars", Maggie Rail would be among them.

Having recorded some 70 cemeteries in Eastern Washington State, she has provided valuable information for others who would not have been able to obtain otherwise. Maggie is a member of the Washington State Cemetery Association, and is an assistant editor with Cemetery Records Online and the WAGenWeb Archives.

Steve: How did you develop your interest in recording cemeteries?

Maggie: I became interested after meeting Bud Engelhardt, who had completed a few and placed them on GenWeb. I asked him how to do it. I said to him, "Oh my, you mean go to the cemetery and copy all the headstones?" . Of course he tells me yes. I said to myself, "There is no way you will see me out in a cemetery doing that, I will have to find an easier way. I will find printed matter and copy it at home."

Steve: How did you start your first cemetery recording?

Maggie: My first try was getting permission from Nona Hengen to use the list in her book "Gateway to the Palouse, 4th Edition", which had Spangle Cemetery in it through the year of 1993. I was interested in it since that is where Great Grandma & Great Grandpa Wilson are buried.

Maggie, photo taken about 10 years ago.

Steve: How many cemeteries have you completed?

Maggie: I really do not know how many I have completed. I keep getting mixed up when I try to count them. I think it is about 70, I have actually walked and read, in different counties of Washington plus 7 cemeteries in Idaho. I have done up a couple dozen of the cemeteries which no longer exist from records recorded by others previous to me, in addition to the ones I did a physical survey of. For a few I acquired information from the Reclamation Department of the State of Washington. These are the "underwater cemeteries" or those that were moved before the raising of the Columbia River when Grand Coulee Dam was built.

Steve: How did you go about locating all the cemeteries in Eastern Washington?

Maggie: I got on the phone to see if I could find all the local cemeteries, phoning dozens of people, not knowing at the time what I was doing; sometimes I still think I don't, (plus I know one person who swears I don't). I later purchased the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society's three books which included the readings of the Rural Cemeteries of Spokane County in the early 1960s. A local historical society can be of help and sometimes the local library. I had the help of a local historian, Helen Boots, with some. I discovered I could phone the local funeral home to locate some, which I didn't know at first and felt rather silly I had not thought of it myself. It only works for cemeteries still in use however.

Steve: Do you contact county agencies for records?

Maggie: That doesn't work for me. Here in Spokane County, I have tried three different times. Each department would send me to a different department and no one knows where they are. However if you have a name, they somehow know how to look the name up for you. My advice to any cemetery association is to never give the records to the county if you can help it. The records get lost and the cemetery is never taken care of, from my vista point.

Steve: What kind of tools and equipment do you use?

Maggie: I have a briefcase with several notebooks and lots of pencils or ballpoint pens and something to brush the headstone off if it's covered with moss, all kept at hand to be placed in the trunk of my car on a moment's notice. I found later that my hands worked about as good as anything to make the lettering readable on a headstone. I was told I would harm the headstones if I used a metal tool, so I got this small plastic brush, but I left it on a headstone in a Colville, Washington cemetery.

Steve: Do you use any camera equipment?

Maggie: I tried my Video camera, which is faster at the cemetery if you have enough batteries. I had three and could never stay more than a couple of hours. I found it much harder to scroll through the videos to check on my errors than to have them in a folder. I heard about taking digital photos. I suspect it will be the same. I will try it, but the method of writing seems to be the best for me. Just today I had to go look one up for someone. I was so glad it was one I had in a notebook, since I no longer have the videos. I will admit, you have a better proof of what the headstone said, with the photo; it is human to err when copying.

Steve: How do you do any pre-planning before visiting a cemetery?

Maggie: If it is far away from where I live, I rent a motel and stay till I am finished. For those in driving distance, this is not necessary. In the future I may have to stay more, since the perimeter of unread cemeteries is getting farther from my home. When reading the ones in Idaho, I visit and stay with my friend in Troy. Maybe I will have her doing it one of these days.

Maggie, on the left, receiving an award from the DAR for her cemetery work.

Steve: How do you organize your transcriptions?

Maggie: I file each cemetery separately in it's own folder, or section of a folder when they are small and can go with others in their county. I use those cheap Peechee like covers that have the three metal holders in them that fold over. This way I can use any notebook I have and sort them into folders later.

Steve: You've developed a "name" for yourself among the locals. How did that come about?

Maggie: I became known to a few people from all the phoning and my trips to the cemeteries. I phoned a newspaper reporter to find out the phone number for the Sexton of a cemetery they did a feature article on. It turned out that the reporter was interviewing me instead. Before I knew it she was out with a photographer with me at one of the cemeteries I was working on. I did get the information I was after however. Later another paper did a feature on cemeteries also, so they also did an article on the work I was doing. From this I am now called the "Cemetery Lady" by some or "Graveyard Guru" by others.

Steve: Recording cemeteries seems to be a hobby without a proper name. What do you call it?

Maggie: I have been told to say I "Read" the cemetery or I "Walked" the cemetery, then someone says I did a "Survey" of the cemetery, and last I heard it was supposed to be that I "Inventoried" the cemetery. Whatever one chooses to call it.

Steve: What kind of advice would you give to other cemetery recordists?

Maggie: Do plan to get as complete a record as you can get after you have visited the cemetery. I think it is very wise to go to the local library or historical society, or both, and see if someone before you read it.

There will be many headstones that no longer exist, or sometimes there never was a headstone. It is beneficial to see if a Sexton is available. Usually you can go there and copy from their books or get a copy of the records from them. After collecting all this you can combine it for the most complete record possible. I suggest you offer to pay for any records you receive because some of them just cannot afford to provide it for you. All of this is very time consuming, but worth it. I find I go over the file at least three times. The most disturbing part about this is that I find a mistake everytime I go back over it. I will always be frustrated about that!

Steve: What plans do you have for the rest of 2000?

Maggie: Spring is around the corner and I am getting anxious to get out and scout out some new ones. I do have to drive further now that Spokane County is nearly finished. The larger cemeteries are not completed, but I could not live long enough to read those. Hopefully we will be able to get computer files of those when they finish entering them. Last count they were in the R's. Then there remains the problem of converting them to a file we can use on the web from the cemetery program they all use.

Steve: What are some of the other things that keep you busy?

Maggie: Sewing, music and my plants and the garden are the main things. I still have my own home and do majority of the upkeep. I love keeping my yard up, mowing the lawn. Especially enjoy my vegetable garden and flowers. I have 38 tuberous begonias starting right now, to be ready for the yard when the weather allows. I also have about 100 African Violet plants. Here in Spokane, we still had snow yesterday, though it melted immediately. The other plants starting are in my garage.

Steve: How long have you been recording cemeteries?

Maggie: I have only been doing this for about 2 years and I still enjoy it. Doing a few has led me to wanting to see many more cemeteries on the Internet to help others with their family search. Therefore my interest is to help get them posted. I am retired and have the time, though my house says otherwise. I say this is much more fun.

- Steve Johnson

Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and Webmaster of Cemetery Records Online.

All of Maggie's cemetery recordings, along with photographs, can be accessed from the Washington Index and Idaho Index at Cemetery Records Online.

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