by Katherine Ricker
DOWLESS’ LABOR OF LOVE: MARKING VETS’ GRAVES
By Ray Wyche
Layton Dowless’ goal is to see a marker at the grave of every U.S. military veteran.
Dowless undertakes his payless work as a token of appreciation for what the
veterans have done.
He has researched the military records of more than 100 former members of the
armed forces, and this research is only the beginning of the project of making sure
the final resting places of ex-servicemen are identified. After proving that the subject
was an honorably discharged veteran, Dowless orders the markers as the family
specifies—granite or bronze—through the local Veterans Service office. Then he
undertakes the often hard physical labor of placing the heavy stone at the grave.
Dowless’ efforts are his way of saying thank you to those who defended the nation.
“I don’t charge anybody anything. I feel like I should do this for the sacrifices they
made for us. They paid the price. They won’t be forgotten,” he says
Dowless got started with his unusual hobby while researching the records and verifying
that he had ancestors in the Revolutionary War.
“So far I have found six ancestors in the Revolution and I’ve got markers for five of them
and am working on the sixth,” he says. Three of these are buried in the Brown Mash
Presbyterian Church Cemetery near Clarkton.
In his search for the burial sites of veterans whose service he has verified, he has
traveled as far as Trenton and Kinston. He has placed monuments in these locations
as well as in Bladen, Brunswick and Robeson counties.
Every honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. armed forces is eligible for a
government-furnished grave marker.
“A lot of people don’t know they can get one and that they are free,” he says.
“Sometimes I go to the family (to tell them about the stones) and sometimes they
come to me.”
Memorial stones are available for service men who are buried overseas, Dowless adds.
Proving an ancestor was in the service in wars long past is not always an easy
undertaking, and Dowless has learned where to look for find the proof the Veterans
“You’ve got to have some good proof,” he says, before the government will ship a
grave marker. Records of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) are
acceptable proof usually, and Civil War rosters are good.
“That’s the easiest to get,” he says of Civil War records He relies heavily on the
Roster of North Carolina Troops put out by the State Department of Archives and
History, which lists all information available about Tar Heels who served in the Late
Unpleasantness, including ages, home counties, dates of enlistments, units, and
health records. Pay vouchers are also good proof of someone’s service in the military,
One of his best sources of information, Dowless says, is the Columbus County
Veterans Services office where records of many veterans can be verified.
Once the Veterans Administration accepts the submitted documents as proof of
an individual’s service, the physical location of the grave must be furnished. Many
early graves, particularly in predominantly rural areas such as Columbus County,
were marked with wooden boards on which pertinent information may have been
These wooden tomb indicators were made primarily from pint fat lightwood boards
and forest fires sweeping through the burial sites often destroyed these markers.
In cemeteries now abandoned—or in abandoned sections of currently used
cemeteries—exact locations are sometimes difficult to locate. In such cases,
Dowless says, “I get my wire out.”
Dowless says he can locate places where the ground has been disturbed by the
dowsing method, a mystic (and debatable) system of determining what is
underground by use of a twig or metal rods.
Dowless works with two pieces of wire bent at 90-degree angles which, when loosely
held parallel to each, will swing toward each other when they are passed over an
underground object or where the soil has been moved about.
Dowsing is also used to find water underground (“waterwitching.”) Though some
scientists say such mysterious actions can’t be proved scientifically, many people
swear by the system for locating what cannot be seen on the surface
He demonstrated dowsing while erecting a marker recently in memory of Wesley
Creech of the White Marsh Church area, who was killed in World War I and whose
body was never found.
The two bent rods eerily moved across each other as he walked over a certain,
unmarked spot in the cemetery. He had been told that there were several unmarked
graves in a section of the graveyard where his two rods indicated an anomaly
Dowless has the markers shipped to his workplace at Todd Furniture Company and
Discount Warehouse and carries them to burial sites in his pickup.
He has had as many as 20 stones on hand at one time and has erected 10 markers
for military veterans in one family alone.
In one day, Dowless and a helper, Bladen County native Jason Bordeaux who now
lives near Greensboro, placed markers on eight graves. Others who have pitched in
to help Dowless include Lionel Todd whose company forklift Dowless uses to unload
the 230-pound stones, and Keith Davis of Whiteville.
He uses a handcart to move the stones to the grave sites.
Once the divining rods show something underground (if the grave is unmarked),
Dowless uses posthole diggers to cut a hole about 16 inches deep in which the
bottom part of the stone will rest.
He uses a special metal slide he had constructed to his specification to ease the
granite marker into the hole.
Ever meticulous in his work, Dowless places a carpenter’s spirit level on the stone
to make sure it stands exactly perpendicular to the ground.
He gets permission to erect a stone, after contacting the veteran’s descendants,
and talks to whomever is in charge of the cemetery before placing the marker. He
lines up the stones with nearby tombstones.
“I try to look out for the lawnmower man,” says Dowless.
Dowless, retired after 38 years in the National Guard and Army Reserves, is a
member of the Columbus County Camp of Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Mother
County (Bladen) Genealogical Society, and has applied for membership in the Sons
of the American Revolution.
He keeps meticulous records of stones he has erected, including photographs, in
Once he erects a stone over a veteran’s grave, Dowless does not move on and
forget about it.
“I furnish U.S. flags for veterans’ graves. I try to go back once a year and replace
them,” he says.
He began his program of honoring deceased veterans about three years ago.
“I wish I had started sooner,” he says.
910-642-4104, ext 229
--The News Reporter, Thursday, May 31, 2007 – 3-A
Mr. Dowless does not have internet access, but I could contact him if someone is
interested in placing a marker in the local area (Bladen, Columbus, Robeson).
Contact Jason Bordeaux