Green Lawn Cemetery restores 118-year-old 'fisherman' statue

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For nearly 130 years, Emil Ambos’ memory has lived on through his statue at his grave in Green Lawn Cemetery.

On Monday, a new day began for his legacy, as the cemetery officially unveiled its newly restored statue of Ambos, which is commonly referred to as the “fisherman statue.”

“Getting this statue restored was a real high priority because of its history and artistic value, combined with how popular it is with people who visit the cemetery,” said Randy Rogers, the president of the Green Lawn Cemetery Association, the nonprofit group that owns the cemetery and is in charge of its preservation and restoration.

The bronze statue was cast in 1901 and depicts Ambos, who died in 1898, sitting on a log holding a fishing pole in one hand and a stringer of fish in the other with a bucket at his feet.

“He was a gentleman and playboy,” Rogers said. “He was a ‘Bruce Wayne’ type of figure in town,” referring to Batman’s wealthy alter-ego.

The statue’s restoration was necessary due to both vandalism and age.

In the late 1990s, a vandal broke into the cemetery and shot the statue, hitting it in the center of Ambos’ straw hat. A couple years later, the fish began to disappear from the stringer. All of this was happening as the statue began to turn green, a common discoloration of bronze exposed to the elements.

“We decided the only way to do it correctly was to get it inside away from moisture,” said Mike Major, the Urbana-based sculptor who did the restoration. “We actually had to clean the surface to get all of that oxidation off. I also resculpted the fish based on a photo where there was still one fish left.”

Major first sandblasted the statue to remove the oxidation before applying a wax and acid mixture that restored the original brown tint. After bolting on the new fish and a bucket handle, he applied a final coat of wax to prevent oxidation. In total, the restoration took about 2 1/2 months.

“If this statue is waxed every year, it’ll last into eternity,” Major said. “But if it’s neglected, it’ll probably be 15 to 30 years depending on if there’s a lot of grit in the wind.”

The restoration, which Roger said cost around $30,000, was paid for by the cemetery board’s endowment combined with annual donations the cemetery receives. The restoration was part of the preparation work for the cemetery’s 175th anniversary, which will occur in 2023.

For Roger, the restoration not only cleaned up one of Green Lawn’s most famous statues, but also draws new attention to Ambos’ story, something Roger believes is important to any cemetery.

“It’s really rewarding when we do restoration work here in the cemetery because not only are we preserving the history of our city, but also we’re preserving these stories,” Roger said. “We have people buried here that are well-known; we have people here that aren’t. But when you go in and start doing research on them, you find out that they all had a story.”

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