Graves weren't always dug six feet deep, and that's what scared him the most.
He didn't want to find something he didn't want to see.
Roughly 11 months ago, Troy McDonald, the Madison Township trustee, found out that the small plat of land called Pleasant Valley Cemetery was his responsibility.
But as recently as last year, there were many in Hoagland who had no idea such a place even existed.
Those who did, some elderly, told McDonald the ground alongside a gravel road outside of Hoagland looked as it had for eons – a place where people dumped garbage and trash; a home for weeds and overgrowth.
Now, though, McDonald has helped transform it into something else entirely.
Once again, it looks like a cemetery, a final resting place for roughly 13 people who died in the late 1890s and early 1920s.
And while it's not completely finished and by no means perfectly restored – likely an impossible task – the cemetery offers a small glimpse into the past and a slice of the town's history.
"It's been a sense of accomplishment to do this," says McDonald. "And it cost the taxpayers zero dollars this year for this to be done."
No longer forgotten
If images of Pleasant Valley hadn't popped up on one South Carolina man's computer screen last year, Pleasant Valley would probably still be the neglected and forgotten place it had been for decades.
The man was tracing his family's genealogy, which led him to Pleasant Valley, located just off Adair Road.
Several websites had documented the decay of the cemetery.
These sites showed broken gravestones buried under large tires, jagged pillars of concrete, Styrofoam and an assortment of other garbage.
The Allen County Cemetery Project, which has a website devoted to listing and describing cemeteries, called it a "disgrace."
Soon, the man was firing off angry letters and phone calls, wondering who was in charge of taking care of such a cemetery.
Turns out, state law mandates township trustees – who are in charge of providing fire protection, relief for the poor and weed assessments among other duties – must care for such cemeteries.
McDonald, now in his third term as Madison Township trustee, was contacted by both the man and The Journal Gazette this past December.
He had no clue that tending to the cemetery, long abandoned and never cared for by his predecessors, fell to him.
Still, with a meager budget, he set about devising a plan.
He made phone calls to the Department of Natural Resources, which cares for some historical cemeteries, for advice.
He analyzed state law, sent out messages to various groups looking for volunteers to help with the clean-up and sought whatever help he could from government officials.
"I learned more about cemeteries than I ever wanted to know," McDonald said.
The Allen County commissioners sent a crew to remove some of the large debris that overtook the ground, according to McDonald.
Then, last spring, he and his girlfriend, Stacey Sorgen, set to work trimming trees, pulling weeds and clearing out the rest of the garbage.
"It was a couple hundred man-hours," McDonald said.
He began tidying up the ground around the bases for what were once gravestones, long gone missing. He would gather whatever broken or shattered gravestones that remained into one place.
Many of them were so old that the names on them had long disappeared.
One day about a month and a half ago, he stumbled across what he thought was just another base in the ground.
Something, though, was a little different.
When he began to gently rub the dirt and mud off, words began to appear.
"You can read it perfectly," says McDonald of the one intact gravestone he found. "It had been preserved. I thought it was pretty cool."
A family history
Isabell McConaughy died on March 31, 1880, at the age of 36.
Her husband, James McConaughy, died 15 years later in 1895 and was, presumably, buried by her side.
He had fought in the Civil War.
James McConaughy is also an ancestor to Neal McKeeman, a retired teacher who has been tracing his own family's history and is wowed by McDonald's work.
"We had a hard time even finding it," McKeeman said of a past visit. "Troy deserves all the credit in the world."
A ceremony to honor James McConaughy is now set for Nov. 12, the day after Veteran's Day, McKeeman said.
The plans are for possibly 12 people from the American Legion in Rome City to come to the cemetery for the ceremony, which will include a salute involving the shooting of rifles.
McKeeman said the records aren't entirely clear, but another Civil War veteran may also be buried at Pleasant Valley.
"When we were out there, it only had one headstone," McKeeman said.
McDonald has found roughly five, so far.
And despite not having names on all of them – they were made of sandstone, which does not withstand the elements as well as other types of rock – they still offer some history.
James's father, John McConaughy, for instance, is believed to be the first, or at least one of the first, people to settle in Hoagland.
He was also buried in Pleasant Valley, having died in 1863.
Plans to preserve
The discovery of Isabell McConaughy's gravestone was one of those days that make the work especially rewarding, McDonald said.
Protected by the elements, Isabell's stone is a relic offering a little look into the past.
What did people put on their gravestones back then?
In Isabell's case, her age was given in years, months and days.
Her Bible verse, chiseled in fancy type, is from Rev. 14:13, which reads in part, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them."
A note is even left for her family, reading: "Weep not dear husband and children for me, for I am waiting in glory for thee."
"It's such a unique stone," McDonald says.
It's now among the small pile he's made of the stones he's found, which are in the center of the ring of nicely trimmed trees that surround the cemetery.
You can see through those trees now, right to the highway that runs through Hoagland.
Once upon a time, that was impossible. Once upon a time, this place did not resemble at all a place for the dead.
McDonald says he's not completely done.
There are plans for a stone with the cemetery's name etched on it to be placed out front, a donation from a businessman in town.
McDonald has also gone to other business people and the Chamber of Commerce asking if they'd be willing to give some money to help defray the costs of upkeep for the next year.
His budget is meager, and he says: "There just isn't a lot of money for this."
But now, most people know Pleasant Valley Cemetery exists, and they can go there if they'd like. And glimpse a little bit of their town's history.