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Johnny Vardeman: Local man photographs thousands of graves for website

POSTED: December 11, 2016 1:00 a.m.

A Gainesville man not only has seen about every grave marker in Hall County, he’s photographed most of them.

That’s Theron Rogers’ hobby, taking pictures of every tombstone in every cemetery he can get to. Not just in Hall County, but others in Jackson, White, Habersham, Barrow, Franklin and Stephens counties, not to mention cemeteries in upstate New York, where he grew up.

He’s a contributor to Find-A-Grave, a free website that helps people find graves of ancestors, friends or loved ones. That’s where he has his own Web page and posts the pictures he’s taken.

Rogers is an IBM retiree, having worked for the company for 40 years. He moved to Hall County in 1991. He started with IBM when it was making clocks, and he was on the ground floor when the company began making computers in the 1950s.

Rogers has taken pictures of all the headstones in 508 cemeteries, a total of 120,747 headstones and counting. He’s working on his hobby almost every day either outside in graveyards when weather permits or inside on the computer.
“The computer work is the hardest,” he says, editing photos, transferring all the information to the appropriate sites and trying to link families together through such sites as ancestry.com.

Rogers began his hobby in 1983. It’s interesting. It’s history. Plus, he likes riding his motorcycle and taking pictures. He uses a phone rather than a regular camera because it’s faster and easier to transfer images to his computer.

He’s found fascinating headstones dating to the 1700s, many in the early 1800s. Those in his former home of New York are the oldest because the area was settled earlier.

Rogers photographed several cemeteries that apparently nobody had visited in some time. He encounters little trouble getting into cemeteries, but if it’s obvious people aren’t welcome, such as a fenced and locked graveyard or “no trespassing” sign, he will move on to another.

He likes Gainesville’s Alta Vista on Jesse Jewell Parkway, where he spent a couple of months photographing the more than 14,000 headstones. “It’s interesting, nice and clean, well taken care of,” he says.

Among other interesting cemeteries is Wahoo off Nancy Creek Road in Gainesville. Rogers said Obed Thompson, a pioneer settler, gave the land to his slaves for a church and cemetery. The cemetery went without maintenance for many years, but the late Ed Dunlap Jr. and others worked in 2006 to restore it.

Rogers said Thompson family graves were to be inundated when Lake Lanier rose in the 1950s. They were relocated, and Dunlap arranged for grave markers to be placed together on his property.

He was surprised to find seven headstones, each with the same date of death, Oct. 8, 1972, for members of a family in Timberridge Cemetery. That was the date when members from three generations of the Grier family died in a car accident. Eight people in all died in the wreck when two cars collided on Ga. 52 north of Lula. The Griers were on their way to a singing program at New Bridge Baptist Church.

Anybody can look up a grave on Find-A-Grave, and anybody can contribute to the site. Hundreds of volunteers all over the world participate.

While Rogers has photographed most of the larger cemeteries in Hall and several other Northeast Georgia counties, there remain some unidentified cemeteries. Just last week he photographed 1,379 headstones in Chapel Christian Cemetery in Winder.

“I would like to see one correct memorial with a headstone photo for every grave or tombstone,” he said, “so anyone in the world with access to the internet could find their ancestors and see a photo of their headstone so they can see proof of where they are buried.”

Rogers is open to discussing his work with anyone, especially those who might know of cemeteries not on the 170 listed for Hall County. He can be reached by email: theronrogers@bellsouth.net.

When he isn’t prowling around cemeteries, Rogers and his wife mount their Honda Goldwing motorcycle with matching trailer and head for the open road. He’s owned a motorcycle for 60 years, and they’ve ridden in all of the lower 48 states, seven Canadian provinces and several European countries, including the Alps in Switzerland. Their longest trip was 8,088 miles and 27 days.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.



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