Susan H. Kelly and Anne C. Williams are two Connecticut women who met when Williams’ child attended the school where Kelly taught sixth grade. The women connected over their interest in colonial life and folk art. They began to take canoe trips together and explore New England towns and countryside. They began with visiting cemeteries in Woodville and Old Lyme, both in New Hampshire, where Kelly and Williams’ ancestors were buried. Along the way, they began to do gravestone rubbings simply as a hobby.
When the two women began to notice patterns, motifs, and the work of specific carvers on many of the stones, they began to conduct research, and joined the Association for Gravestone Studies. As they learned more about the history of gravestone art, they were amazed at how much they had learned by looking at the stones with untrained eyes.
Between 1977 and 1983, Kelly and Williams made several canoe trips during which they made many hundreds of rubbings. They learned the proper tools and techniques to do rubbings without damaging the stone, because they had learned that the deterioration rate for stones was quickening. They found that electric lawn mowers damaged many stones, and that centuries of exposure to the elements meant the stones were rapidly degrading. In the few years that they spent making rubbings, several of the stones of which they had made rubbings became significantly more deteriorated over time. Other stones were subject to vandalism and theft.
Beginning in 1979, Art Resources of Connecticut began to tour twenty-six rubbings in the exhibition Three Centuries of Connecticut Folk Art, which traveled from the Bridgeport Museum of Art, Science and Industry in 1979 to the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, the New Haven Colony Historical Society and to a location in Litchfield, Connecticut. Following that exhibition, 138 of the gravestone rubbings were shown in an exhibition titled A Grave Business: New England Gravestone Rubbings. The exhibition was at the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, and then traveled for another few years with the New England Foundation for the Arts, going to Virginia; Greenfield, Massachusetts; the Edgar Allen Poe House in Baltimore; and several other locations.
After the exhibition tour ended, Kelly and Williams considered touring the exhibition themselves, but they found that the time and expense proved too great.
Through the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS), Kelly and Williams knew Daniel Farber, one of the founders of AGS and an expert in the field. Daniel and his wife Jessie Lie Farber had recently begun giving some of their photography to the museum, and had similarly encouraged other gravestone photographers, Francis Duval and Ivan Rigby, to give their gravestone photography and plaster cast collection to the museum. Farber suggested that Kelly and Wiliams donate their collection to the American Folk Art Museum, and they agreed, substantially contributing to the museum's collection of early American gravestone-related material.