First Cemetery is home to some of Wayzata's earliest residents and founding fathers.

But it was difficult to tell that the city's oldest cemetery had such a distinguished history: Headstones were broken and cracked, with some covered in a moss-like growth. Steps were dangerously loose.

But all of that's changing, thanks to a resident's quest to find the grave of his great-great-great-grandmother at about the same time that the Heritage Preservation Board was working to install bronze plaques at the city's most historically significant locations, including First Cemetery.

The Wayzata Historical Society and the board are working together to bring visibility to the unmarked graves and provide basic renovation to make the cemetery a safe, historically rich environment to visit.

Hundreds of people pass by the cemetery each day at its modest spot, at the corner between Walker Avenue and Wayzata Boulevard, said Sue Sorrentino, a member of the Wayzata Historical Society.

"It's the oldest cemetery in our city limits," she said, "but it was never officially established as such until 1882.

"We know from city records that there were about 60 burials here before that time."

The idea for the project, Sorrentino said, began two years ago when Tom Garrison, the great-great-great-grandson of Wayzata founder Oscar Garrison, was looking for the grave of Oscar's wife, Hannah.

"He knew she was buried in the cemetery," Sorrentino said. "It was back in 1855, though, and there wasn't a marker. So he thought, 'Gee, maybe I could get some money together for just a marker with her name on it.'"

Garrison wrote to the City Council, and his permission to construct a monument was granted. The only condition was that Garrison's family would have to pay for it.

"It definitely got me thinking that we should look more into the cemetery," Sorrentino said.

Around the same time, the Preservation Board was looking at places to install the plaques.

After noticing the condition of the cemetery, the Preservation Board decided that a "spruce up" was necessary, according to Irene Stemmer, president of the Preservation Board. She met Sorrentino at the cemetery, and the two groups decided to join forces.

Sorrentino said a cemetery restoration company called Grave Groomers recently began work to restore the bases of old tombstones that have broken apart.

The estimated cost of the restoration is around $4,000, which the Historical Society is working to raise.

Other work is being done as well: A fence will be built around the perimeter and the steps replaced. But Stemmer said they want to leave the majority of the land untouched.

It is, after all, an old cemetery. "We still want things to look old," Stemmer said with a laugh.

Stemmer said the group has reached out to family members of those buried at the cemetery whose graves need to be repaired.

But the groups say they don't mind the time spent looking for the families.

"This is the first year of the project, so we'll just have to take it one step at a time," Sorrentino said.

"But overall, I think this is good for everyone in Wayzata."

Eric Larson is a Twin Cities freelance writer.