'It's not just about finding names of people; it's about discovering who you are'

Local volunteers take pictures of and clean grave markers to post them on Web for families
Mike Dekorte and his daughter Charity Whitmer clean and photograph one of the grave sites in the Jacksonville Historic Cemetery Saturday. Their effort was part of a nationwide push to care for grave markers and post pictures of them to the Web for family members piecing together their histories. Mail Tribune Bob PennellBob Pennell

Genealogical enthusiasts from across the world received a boost Saturday as a large pack of Jackson County residents fanned out across eight local cemeteries to photograph and upload pictures of local gravestones to a searchable database.

Kristi Bennion of Medford brought the idea before the leaders of the Medford Mormon church as part of a community service project.

The idea came to Bennion after she used the Billion Graves website last month to find a gravestone belonging to her great-great-grandmother that was hidden away in the Bay Area. "Once I was able to find that, I was intrigued," Bennion said. "When I saw how easy it was and how it benefitted me, I wanted to give back."

Bennion organized members of her church into groups to comb eight cemeteries across Jackson County and a few in Northern California. They spent Saturday morning gently cleaning gravestones and photographing them with their iPhones. From there, the photographs were uploaded to the Billion Graves website, which has a worldwide following.

The website attaches a GPS location to all of the gravestones uploaded and allows those wishing to piece together their family tree to see the exact spot where a long-lost relative is buried.

Gwyn Nichol of Medford saw firsthand how wide-ranging the database is when she tracked down a gravestone in Texas that belonged to a distant relative who died at a young age in the late 1800s.

"It was a baby who passed away on my grandmother's side of the family," Nichol said. "We would not have ever known about this baby without the website."

Jared Christensen of Medford recently made contact with some distant relatives when he set out to research his family history.

"It's not just about finding names of people, it's about discovering who you are," he said.

Bennion's goal Saturday was to photograph between 50 and 75 gravestones per hour.

Some of the older stones are difficult to read on a computer screen, so the members transcribed the engraved writing and attached it to the photographs.

Twelve-year-old Eve Van Strahl carefully removed moss from a weathered gravestone at the Jacksonville Historic Cemetery, making sure not to damage the marker in the process.

She snapped the picture and quickly typed in the information etched onto the stone so a user would have accurate information as to who was buried there and when he died.

"I like coming out to here to help other people," she said.

The group was on pace to finish photographing all eight cemeteries by noon. The images were uploaded in real-time, so anyone from across the world could immediately access the information from Southern Oregon's graveyards.

See www.billiongraves.com for more details.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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