New website offers searchable info on one of oldest cemeteries in northern Maine

Posted March 09, 2012, at 1:44 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After a three year effort, a group of collaborators has unveiled an interactive and searchable Web-based map of one of the oldest and largest graveyards in northern Maine.

Officials with the University of Maine at Presque Isle hosted the unveiling in February at the Campus Center, celebrating the project that was conducted by staff at UMPI’s GIS laboratory and a team of UMPI researchers working in partnership with the Fairmount Cemetery Association and the Presque Isle Historical Society. The new website, www.fairmountcemeterypresqueisle.com, serves as an important resource for historians, researchers and those conducting family genealogy and also preserves the historical data found at the cemetery, which was established in the 19th century.

“When we started, we had little to use as a model, but several of us had a clear idea of what we’d like the site to look like and to do,” said UMPI Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Michael Sonntag. “I am very proud to say the research team has produced a product that exceeds what I had in mind.”

Sonntag said everyone, especially members of the Fairmount Cemetery Association, is very happy with the final product, noting the project not only was a collaborative effort between various organizations but would also serve to promote tourism in the region.

“And to know we did this as a partnership with several local organizations, involved students extensively throughout the project, and that it will benefit tourism and local history, tells me we really got it right with this project,” he said. “As a regional institution, UMPI’s mission is to serve central and northern Maine, and projects like this exemplify such service to mission.”

This project serves as the very first mapping of a cemetery in northern Maine and the first large-scale, comprehensive cemetery mapping project using GIS and GPS technology in the state. Geographic information systems, or GIS, capture, store, analyze and display geographic information. Global positioning systems, or GPS, are satellite-based navigation systems that can be used to calculate a precise location anywhere in the world.

Joining Sonntag for the unveiling were Dr. Chunzeng Wang, project coordinator and UMPI associate professor of earth and environmental science, and Ed Hews, representing the cemetery association board of directors.

Wang provided a tour of the new website, explaining how it worked. Visitors can view the map, zoom in to select individual cemetery plots located on the map or use a drop-down menu to select a plot by name. Clicking on a plot reveals detailed information about each burial place as well as a photograph of the gravestone at the cemetery, which is located on Houlton Road.

“This large-scale GIS and web-GIS project has had a number of faculty and students involved,” Wang said. “It is a wonderful learning process for both faculty and students. It provides valuable opportunity for our students to work on a real-world application project. The project also helps the university to be more tied to the communities from academic and community-service perspectives.”

Work on the project began back in 2008, when Sonntag, Wang, Lynn Eldershaw and Kim Sebold garnered a Maine Economic Improvement Fund Small Campus Initiative Fund grant. Ultimately, the group received about $23,000 to complete the project, titled “Developing a Cemetery GIS Database for Historic, Cultural and Social Research in Aroostook County.”

During the first year of the project, students Megan Pryor, Sherry Cole, Ashlee Pryor, Robert Baldwin and John Donley worked as research assistants, helping to map and collect cemetery data — including lot and plot numbers, names of the interred, birth dates, death dates, gender, grave headstone or marker material and mentions of military and civilian service — for more than 2,200 lots and 10,000 plots. Each of these lots and plots was mapped using GPS/GIS technology.

The second and third years of work on the project involved entering all of the collected data into a comprehensive and searchable GIS database management system. Under the supervision of Dr. JoAnne Wallingford, then associate professor of management information systems, and Wang, student Brittany Hickey developed an access database management system for data entry; students Letian Zheng, Nolan Gagnon and Zicong Zhou entered burial data into the system and student Lenka Rambouskova designed the website from scratch.

The information made available by cemetery mapping can now serve as a resource for conservation, interment planning, maintenance of grave markers and monuments, and management of facilities, grounds and records. The completed GIS database also provides important and easily searchable data for researchers in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology and genealogy. For example, researchers will be able to view burial patterns, such as age and lifespan, gender and religion. Some data patterns may provide clues to historic and social events.

Wang also pointed out that the Fairmount Cemetery Association will no longer have to worry about losing paper records to fire, as has happened in the past, since data is now electronically stored and backed up.

With the site complete, project officials are hopeful the community will find many more ways to utilize this information. According to Wang, data from a Fort Fairfield cemetery may soon be available, using the same technology. Wang said members of that community’s historical society will be working with Sebold and her students on a similar project.

“We’ve kept records by hand for years. It’s a pleasure to now be able to say the records are secure,” said Hews.

“We hope this grows,” said Sonntag, noting the historic significance of the project could be applied anywhere in the world.

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