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Local teenager restores cemetery to former glory

While many 16-year-olds spend their free time watching television or hanging out with friends, Zakery Colburn dedicated a year of his life to earning his Eagle Scout rank by restoring the Old East Cemetery in Russellville.

“The cemetery had been forgotten for years and years,” said Franklin County Archives director Chris Ozbirn. “People drove by for years and years and didn’t even know it was there.”

The project began when Colburn noticed the cemetery near his house and thought it would be a good idea for a project for his Eagle badge.

“We were walking one day, and I noticed the street sign for the cemetery – and I thought, ‘There is no way there is a cemetery up there,’” Colburn said. To his surprise, upon further investigation, Colburn discovered broken headstones among overgrown grass and trees. His idea for the project began to take shape.

What he originally expected to be a month-long project, however, turned out to be a bigger undertaking than he first imagined, taking more than a year to complete. 

The majority of the cemetery was overgrown, and headstones had broken off from years of neglect. 

After raising money to support his plan by selling T-shirts, Colburn began on the main part of the project, which would require physical labor and time.

Colburn’s mother Renee said the further her son got into the project, the more support they saw from the community trying to help. 

Grant Atkins, owner of Atkins Marble and Granite Work, spent two Saturdays at the cemetery volunteering his time and equipment to help pick up fallen headstones and restore any that could be salvaged.

The headstones that could not be salvaged were placed on gravel donated by community members so they would not move.

“The community just outpoured like I have never seen,” Renee said. “They all wanted to know what they could do to help.”

She said the more time her son spent at the cemetery, the more history started to unfold, with every pile of leaves raked.

“There is a soldier buried out here whose grave had been forgotten,” Renee said. “I am sure a lot of people didn’t know he was buried out here, so it means a lot that we were able to honor someone who sacrificed and had been forgotten.”

On top of restoring the cemetery, Colburn also added a prayer garden for visitors and a sign at the front of the cemetery. He said he chose the location for the sign because the piece of wood which is now in the middle of the sign is, he believes, part of the original fence post.

“It’s been an experience,” Colburn said. “When you read a book, it’s one thing, but when you get to see and touch the history, it’s a whole other thing.”

Fast forward a year, and the project is complete, with Colburn on his way to earning Eagle Scout – but the lessons the project taught will be around much longer.

“To me, as a mother, I think it is great for him to really be able to see there are still people who care in the world,” Renee said. “At his age, sometimes it is so easy to notice the bad in the world, so this really shows him there is still good.”

Ozbirn said Old East Cemetery has now been added to the Alabama Historical Cemetery Register.