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S.D. cemetery has historic zinc grave markers

CLARK, S.D. -- Rose Hill Cemetery shares the peace and quiet of other graveyards, and though it claims the final resting spot of Gov. Samuel H. Elrod, it has another unique property.

CLARK, S.D. -- Rose Hill Cemetery shares the peace and quiet of other graveyards, and though it claims the final resting spot of Gov. Samuel H. Elrod, it has another unique property.

In fact, five others, all blue-tinged and modern in appearance. They lack the dirt and fungus of aged monuments and someone could reasonably assume they were erected last week, last month or last year.

But these are not typical gravestones; in fact, they are not stones at all.

They are made of the metal zinc, and they have called Rose Hill home for more than 100 years.

1874 to 1914

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Zinc, or "white bronze" grave markers have a curious toehold in cemeteries across America.

Marketed as cheap, durable substitutes for granite, they were only made from 1874 to 1914, according to Barbara Rotundo, a cemetery scholar who wrote about zinc gravestones in the book "Cemeteries and Graveyards: Voices of American Culture."

Les Solberg, former mayor of Clark, stumbled on Rose Hill's particular stones when he was performing maintenance work in the cemetery about 10 years ago.

"I mowed for several years and never noticed them before," Solberg said. "Once I found one, I started looking out here."

Looks deceiving

He described finding the markers as "a freak thing" because most people drive or walk by them without noticing anything different.

The markers look like stone from a few feet away, until their bluish tinge becomes apparent.

Rose Hill Cemetery claims five zinc markers.

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The first four are a tablet marker and three small obelisks.

The fifth sits beneath a Norwegian maple tree that Solberg himself planted more than 20 years ago: The statue of a lamb memorializing the death of 4-year-old Cora Lackey, who died on New Year's Eve in 1891.

Their construction

Cora's lamb epitomizes the quirks of zinc grave marker composition.

The object is hollow, with two halves fused along a vertical seam.

Sometime in the past 116 years, the seam has cracked, leaving an uneven but visible split along the top of the monument.

Custom plaques were bolted onto the memorials; in Cora's case an inscription at the lamb's base reads: "Our Darling, Safe, Safe At Home."

A cemetery containing five zinc markers is a rarity, said Donald Hall, trustee of the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, N.Y., and member of the Association for Gravestone Studies.

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"It's unusual to find more than three or four in a graveyard, so five is a nice find," Hall said.

He said zinc grave markers can be found across the U.S. and Canada, and were sold through sales agents.

"Most agents, in modern terms, were moonlighting; but judging by the markers they left behind, very few of them made any money. This ... undoubtedly explains why most cemeteries contain only one or two examples of white bronze," Rotundo wrote.

Only one company

Monumental Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, Conn., the sole company that manufactured zinc markers, limited sales agents to one per county, Hall said.

All zinc markers were created at the company's headquarters in Bridgeport by an artist who molded a wax model of the desired monument, Rotundo wrote.

Then, a plaster duplicate of the model was made, which would then be used to cast sections of the zinc, she wrote. The separate sections would then be fused together with molten zinc.

Hall said that it is not known how many grave markers are in existence. Solberg has only seen the zinc markers in one other cemetery.

Had subsidiaries

Several zinc gravestones at Rose Hill bear the stamp of Western White Bronze Co., a Des Moines-based subsidiary of Monumental Bronze Co. that manufactured zinc grave markers from 1886 to 1908.

Rotundo wrote that Monumental Bronze Co. set up subsidiaries across the Northeast and Midwest to help cast and distribute the gravestones.

Affordable price

Affordability was one of the gravestones' chief selling points.

A zinc grave marker with name and dates cost about $6 at the time the monuments were being built, Rotundo wrote.

A $6 marker from 1889 would cost $139.47 in 2008 dollars, according to a dollar-value calculator on Measuringworth.com, a Web site that measures monetary value over American history.

A contemporary stone grave tablet, by comparison, begins about $2,000, including base and carving, according to a sales associate at a local memorial company.

Gone after 1914

After 40 years, zinc grave markers disappeared from the marketplace.

A prime reason was the outbreak of World War I in 1914, at which point Monumental Bronze Co. switched to producing war materials for Europe, Hall said.

One of the zinc grave markers' selling points may have also spelled their undoing.

After four decades of being touted as a modern alternative to gravestones, zinc monuments were no longer the new thing, Hall said.

He added that a more classical, traditional taste may have come back into fashion.

Solberg himself has a personal connection to one of the Rose Hill stones.

His wife's great-grandfather was one of the first settlers, William Baily, who died in 1884, Solberg said.

For Solberg, the stones represent a unique slice of Americana.

"That's a little piece of history that just kind of got lost," Solberg said.

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