With slow, steady steps, Elvy Adams walked across the leaf-covered ground in the old Smith Cemetery.
Adams, 82, was on a mission to find unmarked graves in the historic cemetery that is the known burial place for at least 40 people.
In each hand, he held a braising rod. With elbows by his side and arms bent at a 90-degree angle, the rods extended about 2 feet from his body.
“OK, there’s a grave right here,” he said after walking over a section of the earth where the rods crossed.
He proceeded to walk over different sections of the ground to find where the person’s head and feet were located.
Adams was using an age-old technique called dowsing to find the graves. Dowsing, which also is called witching or divining, is a method people use to find underground objects of interest, according to a paper by Dr. William E. Whittaker in the Office of the State Archaeologist at The University of Iowa.
There are many ways dowsing can be performed, but the most common way is with two bent metal rods, according to his paper.
The method is used “by believers to find not only graves, but water, water pipes, broken pipes, buried electrical lines, lost people, buried foundations, archaeological sites” and more.
However, Whittaker, a skeptic of dowsing for graves, determined the fundamental principles of grave dowsing “are likely incorrect” based on simple household experiments, according to his report.
That being said, others, including Adams, vouch for its accuracy, and Adams cited at least one example in which his work was proven plausible by follow-up tests.
Adams has been dowsing for graves for eight years. He got into the practice out of a search for his own family history.
“To be honest with you, I wanted to know who I was and where I came from,” the Carthage resident said.
Born and raised in Beckville, Adams said he left home at 16 to join the Air Force and spent 22 years in the service before retiring as a master sergeant.
During that time, he also was a church planter, pastor and builder, but in 2005, he resigned from his post at New Life Assembly of God in Ore City and decided to set out on a new road.
“I said, now Lord, you show me what to do,” he said.
For almost six months, he heard nothing specific from God. But then, after another prayer, that changed.
“He birthed what I’m doing in my heart that day,” Adams said. “The driving force that makes me do this is because it was ordained of God that I do this.”
The big picture of Adam’s work involves a three-pronged focus of restoration, investigation and preservation.
In other words, he wants to find lost cemeteries, clean them up, investigate the history of who is buried there and set up a means of preserving them for the future. Dowsing for graves is just one part of that work.
Each time Adams goes to a cemetery to search for unmarked graves, he brings his braising rods. People have theories about how the rods work as far as detecting graves, but no one really knows, he said.
Some say the movement of the rods is caused by the disruption in the earth that was made when the grave was dug.
Others say it’s the chemistry of the body. Adams thinks it’s related to the genes in the body.
“To explain how it works,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Most of the cemeteries Adams is working on are old family cemeteries that have been lost in the woods over time.
With the support of the counties he works in and the help of volunteers, he goes in and clears the debris, taking care not to disrupt the known graves.
Adams will dowse the entire area going 20 feet beyond the last grave. He then has cinder blocks placed at the head to mark a grave and appoints a custodian to take care of the cemetery from that point on.
In addition, the historical information his daughter finds about the cemetery, and those who are buried in it, is submitted to the county clerk and the state, he said.
He and his team have restored 22 cemeteries, most of those in Panola County. At three of the cemeteries, people have formed preservation associations to ensure the upkeep of the burial grounds.
Adams has worked with the Texas Historical Commission’s RIP (Record, Investigate, Protect) Guardian Volunteer Network, a program that is no longer active. The program existed to provide technical assistance and education to volunteers and empower them with proper perseveration and conservation techniques, according to a fact sheet about it.
The largest cemetery project he has worked on was about three acres and had more than 400 unmarked graves, he said.
It took him about five months to get that cemetery looking the way he wanted, but, he said, it’s work worth doing.
“To me it gives us, those of us who are still here, an opportunity to rewrite history so we are literally restoring history,” he said. “We’re pulling up history to teach today’s generation how it was in Texas when they began to move in. That’s one of my satisfactions.”
Although Adams has done a lot of restoration work already, there is much more he wants to do.
“I have asked God to give me the strength and the life long enough to restore the cemeteries in Panola County,” he said.
There are about 75 documented ones in the county, and he has restored 20 of those. He is confident he will finish the rest.
He said it’s a joyous occasion to see people, especially those who are older, overcome with emotion when they find out where a loved one is buried.
“I’m doing for others what I would want them to do for me,” he said.
Adams said God gave him the burden to do this work, and he believes God will sustain him until he is finished.
“It’s making sure that I do the will of God in my life,” he said. “And to do the will of God in my life, I have to do what he tells me to do.”