Young Preservationist: Matthew Prythero, Cemetery-Saver

Posted on: November 5th, 2012 by David Weible 5 Comments

Matthew Prythero got his start in preservation with an 8th grade term project. Already having racked up numerous preservation awards from his hometown of Arvada, Colo., Jefferson County, and Colorado Preservation, Inc., Matthew now continues his work preserving historic landmarks in the area while studying anthropology, social sciences, and secondary education as a freshman at nearby University of Denver. I caught up with Matthew at 7:30 a.m. local time last Thursday, and found him already in the thick of some preservation work.

How did you get involved in preservation?

I actually went to school in Olde Town Arvada and for my 8th grade term project I ended up doing the history of Arvada and it was the summer after that that I started volunteering at the historical society.

That same year I found out about the Ralston Cemetery. I became one of the archivists in the historical society and I noticed that they didn’t have too much on the cemetery. In fact they had about one sheet of paper: That was it. And turns out that the cemetery was a mile from my house so I decided to try and go see what it looked like.

I went out with my family and we documented the cemetery. From there, I kept collecting information and finally I started working with History Colorado and Colorado Preservation, Inc. and got the cemetery looking a lot better.

What did your work with the cemetery involve?

We actually have a little over 92 burials in the cemetery, but because of so much vandalism only 14 headstones and 9 footstones remain, and what does remain is in terrible condition. So we restored a couple just for a first try and basically worked with neighbors trying to get kids to understand that a cemetery is a sacred place (or at least it should be respected). Before, they’d ride their bikes through there and that’s how a lot of the headstones became cracked or damaged.

I worked a lot with landscape restoration as well. The cemetery is on its own little hill so I worked with someone from History Colorado to understand more about landscape preservation. There had been a landscaper and he took a lot of dirt out of the hill -- and I have a feeling he took a couple of bodies with it -- but we were able to restore what the landscape looked like as well as a couple of the wooden posts. This year will be our final restoration and we’ll hope that the headstones will stay the same.

What drew you to the cemetery?

Everybody seems to ask me that question. I’m not exactly 100 percent sure. Everyone at the historical society makes fun of me because I always choose impossible projects where either all of the information was lost or it was never really recorded.

The cemetery actually used to have two burial books that were kept by the local church. One burned in a fire of the building that used to be in the cemetery, and the other was given to a minister who had no children and after he died the book disappeared.

So I think it was just that sense of nothingness. If there’s nothing recorded, there should at least be something. I’m guessing that was it. Otherwise you can go with everyone else saying that it’s the ghosts that brought me there.

What other kinds of preservation projects have you been involved with?

I work on a project to restore some of the old mine buildings that are in Leyden, Colo. Unfortunately, I think the city had to tear down one because of asbestos, which was a loss to me. We’re also working on restoring their old town hall which was an army barracks during WWII and it was basically there that the town of Leyden got started. It’s in terrible shape. The roof always seems to be leaking no matter what we do.

Any other projects on the horizon?

There’s one project I’m looking forward to. It’s an old house that unfortunately the owners have left vacant for I think 12 years, and I only happened to notice it as I drove by. I’m working with them right now to try and come under an agreement where we restore it and possibly have them use it for a new community center that is badly needed around that area.

It has wood siding to it and you can tell that a lot of it has already fallen down and it leaves the actual building exposed. The roof is terrible, the chimney collapses, a couple windows are broken, so that one looks like a big project I’ll be working on for a while.

Are you taking any courses in college that will help lead to a career in preservation?

I want to at least major in anthropology but also secondary education and social sciences. I’d love to make a career out of preservation, either architectural preservation or on the very slim case I’m ever needed in it, cemetery preservation.

So is that your favorite area? Cemeteries?

Out of all of it, it would definitely have to be cemetery preservation just because not only are you learning to restore historic items but you’re also trying to learn the history of each person whose headstone you’re working on -- at least that’s my goal. It’s not just, “This is another stone.” This is another story.

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David Weible

David Weible

David Weible is a content specialist for the National Trust, previously with Preservation magazine. He came to D.C. from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Local Preservationists, Preservation Magazine

5 Responses

  1. t downs

    November 5, 2012

    Super job, Matthew. Kudos!!

  2. Dianne

    November 5, 2012

    Great article and way to go Matthew. We need more young people like you! Great job and good luck with all of your projects

  3. Kate

    November 6, 2012

    Matthew, you seem to have accomplished so much in your young life. Keep up the hard work.

  4. glenjamie

    November 6, 2012

    Many congratulations to Matthew, we all need more young people like you!..What i liked most about your interview was helping kids understand that cemeteries are a sacred burial place and should be respected by everyone. Well done again to Matthew and all involved with the restoration work at Ralston Cemetery.

  5. Irene Stemmer

    November 21, 2012

    Congratulations,Mathew, you have found the excitement of preservation. I love your last sentence on the cemetery “it’s not just another stone-it’s another story.”