GARDINER — Sweat dripped off the tip of Hank McIntyre’s nose Tuesday as he knelt and reached into the slot he was digging in the ground.

The clang of his shovel blade had announced the presence of another rock lodged in the packed soil.

It might have been placed scores of years ago to help support the marker for Mrs. Henry Parker’s grave. The slate headstone lay facedown on the ground in the churchyard of the former St. Anne’s Church on Dresden Avenue, waiting to be set in place again. A corner of the stone is missing. It might have broken off in the ground, or it might never have been there at all.

While McIntyre dug, Bill King puttered nearby, leafing through the three-ring binder that contains many of the pieces of the puzzle the two men are trying to solve.

“We do a terrible job taking care of our graveyards. Most of them are private. They’re not city graveyards; that’s where the problem is,” he said.

Births and deaths are recorded by government agencies, but no one tracks who is interred in privately owned burial grounds or where those graves are located. Often, when the record keeper dies, any information that person collected is stashed in an attic or basement or discarded.

King, his wife, his brother and his brother’s wife visited the churchyard about 25 years ago to locate the graves of his ancestors, Gideon and Dorcas Gardiner. Gideon was a first cousin of Sylvester Gardiner, who established Gardinerstown Plantation in 1754, and Dorcas Gardiner is believed to be the first person interred in the churchyard. King said he hasn’t been able to find anyone buried there earlier than Dorcas.

St. Anne’s churchyard is just one of the destinations in New England that King has visited, tracing his family back through generations to the era before the American Colonies declared their independence from England in 1776.

When King returned to St. Anne’s churchyard seven years later, many of the headstones were scattered on the ground, some pulled from bases. Eventually, they were all piled along an edge of the churchyard.

Now King and McIntyre are relying on scarce records – mostly just the photos King’s sister-in-law took that day a quarter-century ago and the work of some volunteers who helped locate some of the graves – to set the headstones back where they belong.

The reason is simple.

“Those are my ancestors,” King, 85, said, indicating the line of headstones of the Gardiner family.

The Parker headstone was the second one placed Tuesday.

A bit more than an hour before, King and McIntyre conferred with Logan Johnston about the placement of the stone of Samuel and Sally Jewett. Johnston had driven his tractor into town to help lift the stone, estimated to weigh 400 pounds.

McIntyre had mixed a bonding agent in a foil pan and spread it on the two pieces of the headstone’s base. Once in place, the headstone’s weight would cement the bond and keep the grave marker in place. Getting the headstone in place required conferring, rewrapping the strapping on the stone and several attempts before the stone settled into place, leaving Johnston free to return to his farm and fret about the humidity and haying conditions.

McIntyre, 66, a member of nearby Christ Church Episcopal, volunteered to help King in his quest to return the headstones to where they belong at the behest of Jody Clark, the church’s organist, who knew what King was attempting.

“I’m retired and I was looking for something to do,” he said.

Spread around the grave site were three kinds of shovels, a wooden board, a pair of loppers to cut tree roots, a level and a variety of trowels. It’s almost like archeology, McIntyre said.

“It’s hard to get back into the mode of what we used last year,” McIntyre said. “I should make a packing list for graveyard digging. Over the winter you lose track of what you use.”

Sometimes months pass before they are ready to place headstones.

He dug down about 2 feet before he and King lifted the stone into place. The guideline they are using is that about one-third of the stone’s length should be buried. While King held the stone in place, McIntyre filled the space around it with gravel, sand and water before backfilling the rest of the hole with the soil and turf that he had set aside on a tarp.

King and McIntyre called it quits Tuesday after two headstones. They might return during the second week in July to continue their labors.

Jessica Lowell can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:

[email protected]