GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — George White began repairing marble tombstones quite by accident. It's not an easy task, but one he has learned he enjoys.
"It's satisfying," he said. "It's a long, drawn-out, time consuming process, but it's fulfilling."
He recently restored some of the oldest tombstones at Forrest Cemetery, which dates back to 1872.
White, a semi-retired attorney, has always loved to work with his hands, and especially enjoys restoring antique wicker furniture.
He also loves history, and it bothered him that someone always was breaking the index finger off the Emma Sansom monument, erected in Gadsden in 1907 to honor the Civil War heroine.
"I would see that missing finger," White said, "and I would ask myself, 'How hard would it be to make a finger and put it on there?'"
The finger was broken off as a prank at least five times through the years, and it was always found and replaced. The finger is significant because Emma Sansom is known for pointing the way to where Confederate Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest could safely cross Black Creek to pursue Union forces.
The last time the finger was broken off, White and Councilman Bill Stewart tried to find out who had it, but couldn't.
So White set out to carve a new finger out of Italian Carrara marble — the same kind of marble from which the original statue was carved.
It was his first real test with marble, and he learned a few tricks during the process.
"If you try to stick it on with glue, it's going to fail," he said.
In White's research, he found out the key was to drill through the marble, insert a metal rod, then attach it with stone epoxy.
"I had never worked with stone or marble before," he said.
He contacted Charlie Joiner, the founder of Clark Memorials, to find out some tips. Joiner repaired Confederate statues for free for years.
White set out to make the finger and reattach it to the monument. He completed the project in 2008.
"It must have worked," he said. "They're still there. I guess that worked out pretty well."
White is active in many organizations, including serving as president of the Forrest Cemetery Board of Trustees.
The entrance to the cemetery, which sits on about 40 acres, is near 15th and Walnut streets. The property is owned by the city of Gadsden, and many of its founding fathers are buried there.
A limb from a large oak tree fell in November 2011 on the monument for Gabriel Hughes, the son of Miles Hughes — one of three founders of Gadsden in 1845.
The 8-foot tall monument was in five sections and weighs hundreds of pounds.
A large chunk was missing from the base and the tall column was broken off, leaving the monument on the ground in three pieces.
"The mayor asked me if I thought I could fix it," White said. "I thought I could try."
Once White began working to make the repairs, he found even more damage than was visible. He ended up having to use a motor hoist and take the monument apart to make repairs to each section, then reattach them.
"It's not something that was easy," he said. "Typically things get broken and stay broken."
The tombstone is 122 years old, and many stones from that era were carved from Georgia marble, according to White.
"The old master sculptors liked to use Georgia marble," he said. "It came out of a quarry there."
It was very white, he said, when it was new.
One group of monuments in the same section of the cemetery recently were cleaned and are again bright white.
But White said he likes the fact that marble fades with age. It reflects the age and history recorded there.
To match the pieces of new marble in the repaired portion of the monument, White rubbed the pieces of new marble with soot.
"It goes down in the grooves really good," he said.
He also has made a repair to a monument that had a small marble cross at the top. Another monument with a slightly larger cross had one side knocked off. Now those repairs can hardly be detected unless White points them out.
The city has trimmed many of the trees back and tries to remove dead limbs to keep them falling on the old monuments.
"Those big trees are hard on those monuments," White said.
But the trees also are part of the history in a cemetery that old, he added.
As long as there are trees, there are probably going to be more monuments damaged. But White said he will continue to make repairs if needed.
"It's a lost art in a way," he said.
Information from: The Gadsden Times, http://www.gadsdentimes.com