Moultrie Church in St. Augustine, Florida

This little church is stunning and was built in 1877, when the graveyard (called Wildwood Cemetery) was already existing. It was originally a Southern Methodist church, then non-denominational, and then finally Catholic, with the first Catholic mass held in 2014. The church has been transformed through the years as the church population declined, until now when it’s essentially opened for special services and occasions.

A couple began taking care of the church and grounds in 2004. Mr. and Mrs. Tindell started caretaking for the cemetery, recovering buried stones and maintaining the grounds before finally gaining permission to care for the building as well. The grounds are impeccable, with some of the cleanest and most pristine old headstones I’ve seen in this area. Some of the unusual features are toward the back of the cemetery, so be sure to walk all the way through and head toward the woods.

Propped against a tree you’ll find a wooden marker. Sadly, it can no longer be read, and most wooden markers tend to fall over due to the moisture at the base rotting the wood, but I still love seeing them! There is also a handmade headstone from 1960 for a C.R. Cooper that looks like molded concrete with turquoise paint layered over the scratched letters. The font for the name is lovely and has a little flourish on the C. It looks like it was written in the wet concrete with someone’s finger and I love the idea of that.

 

In the far corner is an odd section that I approached, thinking at first that it was a small area for families to sprinkle cremains, but that isn’t what’s going on there. It was actually a family plot for a husband and wife, and aside from the angels and trinkets, there were also lots and lots of oyster shells. I’ve seen so many conch shells in the African American cemeteries that I frequent, but the oyster shells were new to me. If anyone knows the significance, please reach out to me here on the blog. I’d appreciate it! I know seashells can be used as a way to mark a visit to a loved one’s grave, similar to the Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble. The conch usually signifies the trip homeward for the person buried there, a way of being carried back across the sea. I’ve even heard that the conch, if whole, can hold the soul of that person. I never touch them when I visit cemeteries, but I do take a peek to see if they were sourced (they’ll have a small hole in the shell) or collected naturally.

Definitely go to this cemetery if you get the chance, it’s lovely.

Also take a minute to look into your local chapter for the Association of Gravestone Studies. I joined the Florida chapter about a month ago and got my first newsletter the other day- it had so much information in it- I loved going through all of the articles. If you’re interested in joining you can find them on Facebook. Their annual conference is in June so mark your calendars!

Meanwhile, I’m sitting here in the dark watching Britcoms because it’s the first day of daylight savings time and Shawn is also out of town. The house seems very quiet. Grace and I are heading to Tampa this week to revisit some favorite cemeteries and I’m sure hilarity will ensue. We have a big list to get through so I’m just hoping for the best, though I was hoping for cooler weather. Florida decided to spoil us for a week with evening temps in the 50’s and then ruin it all over again the next week with our usual heat. Oh well. There’s a lot to be grateful for right now, including the fact that my cat now has her paw in my water glass.

Happy daylight savings, everyone!

 

 

Marti Colon Cemetery in Tampa, Florida

I took a much needed day off to be alone and just wander, and what better place to do that than in Tampa’s cemeteries. I had several on my list that I had missed on my last trip, and decided to head in that direction. I needed to just stop thinking for a day.

My favorite of the several that I visited was not the most showy or ostentatious, quite the opposite, in fact. I had passed it back in February and was unable to see the name on the sign, I just saw the large, white mausoleum with Jesus on the front of it and knew I had to go back. It took me a bit of researching to figure out which one it might potentially be, but I found it, and went there after visiting Myrtle Hill (amazing), and Orange Hill (interesting). Marti Colon is not terribly large, and has a checkered past involving the city, the parks department, dumping of raw sewage, and a LOT of bodies that were not moved during the Columbus Road expansion and then a few more bodies that were moved improperly- stacked in graves one on top of the other. That’s a no-no unless the plot was sold to the family for that kind of burial. But when you go there, you’d never know it’s had problems. It was established in 1895.

The one family mausoleum at the front is huge and I’ve never seen one like it. First, the doorway was tiled in bright colors and there were no doors. Over the door was a very large plaster figure of Jesus with the stigmata on his hands. (I absolutely loved it, of course. It was amazing and only slightly ghoulish.) The windows were some kind of blurred glass that you could still see out of, and inside the ceilings were surprisingly high. There were niches in the walls for flowers and tributes, and the marble for the name plates was an unusual pink color. The niches had been painted a robin’s egg blue and were discolored from candles being burned in them over the years. One side held flowers and the other a dead plant. An old broom was in the corner. The windows on either side of the doorway actually had crank handles so that they could be opened. It was really remarkable and didn’t exactly remind me of a mausoleum, more of a house. Like you could put in doors and a couch and be good to go. I’m thinking the family must like that. The mausoleum was almost full.

The thing about the mausoleum that really struck me though, besides all that I’ve mentioned, is that the light inside was extraordinary. It was perfect for photos; I’m not sure if it was the blurred glass or the high ceilings, or the reflective tile floor, but it was really beautiful. I stayed in there a long time, just looking. Finally, I walked out to see the larger mausoleum. It was flat and wide, dark on the inside, and I felt a need to duck going in. It had skylights throughout the central section that gave it an eerie feeling with lots of shadows. I can’t say I’d want to be in this one on a rainy day. Tributes were scattered all over the floor and at the end of the main section was a broken stained glass window that had been of some religious figure. My guess would be Mary. One hand was left in the glass, perfectly detailed and holding a flower stem, while the rest of the figure was gone. It needed a good mop, broom, and bucket of paint. It was just dirty and sad, in the way of homes that get run down because the occupants can’t afford to replace things as they get old or break. I flipped the light switch praying for the lights to come on, but the electricity had probably been turned off for years. I walked out to look at the gravestones.

Like the other cemeteries in Tampa this one was full of photos on the graves. It’s one of my favorite things about visiting this area. The Spanish, Cuban, and Italian immigrants loved their fancy graves and rituals. The photos mean that you will usually see at least one post-mortem while visiting the cemeteries, and I saw what I thought was one in the back, but Maryanne said she didn’t think so. Hard to tell on that one. They always startle me a bit, but it’s either something you love or something that makes you shiver. I usually like them.

 

I was following a path through the graves and looking down at one grave at a time as I walked when I saw a small handmade marker. Baby Sanchez June 16, 1961, Love Mom and Dad. The phrase had been scratched into the concrete with a nail or sharp tool, and I got down on the ground to take a closer look. I thought about the parents that must have made that and what they felt like at the time, and then I saw another one. And another. There was an entire row of the handmade markers, all in the same hand, and all identical otherwise aside from the dates and names. The parents had not made them. One person in the community had made them for the families that lost children for several years. And then I took a closer look around and saw that I was standing in Babyland.

I don’t willingly enter these sections anymore, and I felt something akin to fear grip my heart when I realized where I was, so I looked at one other grave that caught my eye and then went back to the pathway to view the section from there. The babies were under large, shady trees and the graves were so tiny, and some quite ornate. In the back I saw one that had small toy truck left on it, which amazed me as it looked fairly old. I made my way back to the front of the cemetery.

This is one that I’ll be going back to in the next month, and bringing a few cemetery-loving friends for an outing. I’m also interested in viewing the records on some of the families there. It’s a little run-down, but I think that’s exactly what I liked about it. I doubt it has many visitors since I saw little evidence of recent visits like fresh or new flowers and cards. Instead, like the cemetery itself, everything was worn, slightly faded, and had seen better, brighter days. But to me, that made it glorious.

 

Flowers at Page Jackson Cemetery

Grace, Gus, and I go out to Page Jackson together and also tend to monitor the site on our own. During this summer we spent some time researching more about the cemetery and people, and we also made plans for what we would like to do out there this winter when the heat and humidity isn’t sapping our energy so much. There’s still one gravestone I’ve yet to find from one of the first marked burials, and it’s bugging me. On the first cool day this winter that’s where I’ll be.

I went out recently with Shawn in the evening. We’ve been looking for a house in the area and many of our weekends are spent in Sanford checking out real estate. One day we were coming home later than usual; it was already getting dark. 

“Pull into the cemetery, would you?” I said as we came near, and he obliged.

My goal was to see how many cars were parked back there. We drove down the paved road until the asphalt gave way to the dirt road that leads into Page Jackson. There thankfully wasn’t anyone else there, and we could still see pretty well so we stopped and got out. 

Page Jackson doesn’t have a single flower blooming on its 11 acres. Not. One. It’s a combination of pine woods and oak trees and it looks like hell. Two grave sites are regularly visited out of 1,090, and their people leave silk flowers on them and not fresh. It’s always been like that. There is nothing here that smells except for the dirt road when it rains. That’s it. 

When I got out of the car that night there was an overwhelming smell of flowers. The smell wasn’t familiar, but it seemed like an old fashioned smell. It was heady and sweet and it felt like we were in a cloud of it. I turned to Shawn and asked if he could smell it. He could not.

I said, “The flowers. You don’t smell them?” He didn’t. He mentioned that something must be blooming but there wasn’t anything nearby or overhead. Just the cathedral of oak branches and Spanish moss. We left shortly thereafter because a couple of cars started pulling into the cemetery. One went to the house on the property, and one drove back to Shiloh cemetery.

I think it was during the same month when Gus and I went out after 11 pm to drive through and see if there were a lot of people there. That night there was not a single car, and we rolled the windows down. The crickets and frogs were loud, and I wondered if the smell would be there again but it wasn’t. 

Another night I drove through near dusk and the smell was there again, in the front section which is the oldest and covers about an acre. No matter where I went, the smell was there. It was just as strong. 

This week Grace stayed at Gus’s to pet sit and hang out in Sanford for a week, just to relax and get out of Orlando. She told me she was thinking of driving through the cemetery at night just to see what was going on out there. I told her to message me when she got back. 

A little after ten I got a frantic message saying that when she pulled past the sign to the cemetery and hit the dirt road the whole car filled with the smell of lilacs and her dog, Sherman, cowered in the seat and started growling. She stopped the car, backed up, and left immediately. She also said the smell had been overwhelmingly strong and that before she backed up she saw lights in the trees. 

“What, like flashlights?” I asked.

She shook her head no.

“Car lights, then? Headlights, maybe from someone driving through from Shiloh?”

She shook her head again. “No. It looked more like small lights, almost as if someone were holding a candle about waist high.”

Grace and I went out the next morning to look for lights. There weren’t any- no one puts grave lights out here and when you see them in the dark they tend to have a tell-tale blueish cast, and they’re close to the ground. There are 2 tiki torches on one of the maintained graves, but we looked at them and they’d never been lit. Plus, if someone held a candle in the dark you’d see a reflection of the light on their face. And grave lights don’t move. Also, we don’t have lightning bugs in this part of Florida.

We found out that Gus had the same experience one night with the smell, but not with the lights. I think it’s interesting that all of us have had the same experience and we can’t find the cause. People say the cemetery is haunted but I’d prefer to look for something in the here and now before I believe this is some ghostly activity. The place has been investigated but I never heard anyone mention the smell. Also, the smell seems to only be in the front acre. It’s not farther back in the cemetery and not in Shiloh.

Aside from that, I believe any haunting in this cemetery comes from people being in there at night with flashlights and not from ghosts, but that’s my opinion. This cemetery has a lot of activity from the human element, and while I’m certainly curious, I don’t particularly care as long as there’s no damage or more trash for us to pick up. The cemetery has been vandalized in the past and we saw the polaroids in the local museum. It was horrifying. I think it’s also worth mentioning that every other time I’ve encountered a smell in a cemetery it’s clearly been from some kind of decay and has been gag-inducing and awful.

Has anyone had a similar incident happen to them at a cemetery? I’d like to hear about it.

Children’s Burials

Some of you might wince at this and stop reading, if you even got this far, and I get it. I don’t have children but like a lot of women I still turn into a lioness when I see or hear of them being mistreated, and I feel so much sadness for anyone who loses a child. I don’t know what that’s like, but I imagine a pain that is completely soul crushing. I have a friend who told me once about losing her child before it was even 2 weeks old and I sat and cried with her, and then cried on the plane after our visit, still under the spell of pain and anguish. I do know that it’s not something you ever get over and that some people never move past it.

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It’s this particular kind of pain that makes children’s burials so poignant and also so very personal. It is usually on these graves where we see the most creativity, the sweetest pictures, and the most gifts left on the grave. A concentrated space for children in a cemetery is usually called Babyland, and it’s usually marked with a sign as if you couldn’t tell already by the style of the headstones and the feel of the place. If the family already has a plot purchased, the child will usually go with the rest of the family. If not, the plot is purchased in the section for babies instead. At Greenwood Cemetery here in Orlando there are three Babyland sections, and one of them is a newer space and is always fluttering with balloons, pinwheels, and wind chimes. It’s an active space within the cemetery, and I love that. When we went the week after Halloween to take some pictures we found that someone had gone through the entire section and left 3 pieces of candy on each grave, as though the babies had been trick-or-treating.

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Headstones for children range from the more sedate stones to ones that are in the shape of cartoon characters or small animals. A Pac-Man in South Carolina comes to mind that was designed for an eight year old boy. The traditional stone for children usually has a lamb on the top, though I have seen them with small birds that appear the be lying down. A lot of children’s stones have some type of picture on them, which can be heartbreaking to see. I particularly like the photos that aren’t studio pictures, but ones where the child is playing and happy. I have a favorite one of these that I featured in a previous post. It was during my last visit to Greenwood that I saw my first post-mortem portrait of a child on a headstone, and it startled me as the date was from the 1990’s. I had always believed this to be a much older custom (also more European) and had never seen a post-mortem on any headstone before. It startled me a bit because it was unexpected given the dates in this plot- which ranged from 1975 to present day, essentially my own lifespan.

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My favorite type of child’s markers are the ones with the child lying down, usually on some type of draped bed. They’re beautiful and peaceful but not something that I get to see that often. I saw two of them recently, one in Magnolia Cemetery and one in Bethany Cemetery, both in Charleston. There is also a good example of a child reclining on a bed at St. Roch’s Cemetery in New Orleans, right when you enter the cemetery gates. However, that’s not what makes that cemetery so spooky. If you’ve never been, it’s what’s inside the chapel that will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. (Google it.) In Savannah one of the most famous child’s graves is that of Gracie Watson in Bonaventure. She had so many visitors and gifts that the cemetery erected a fence around her to keep her safe. Even with the fence, there are gifts left everywhere for her, and of course there are always rumors that she walks around the cemetery at night.

The baby section in the Geneva Cemetery here in Florida is fenced off completely with a wooden picket fence, as though they wanted people to stay out of the section. When you lean over the fence with your hands on the top to look in, you get the same sensation of looking into a crib and I wondered if that was part of the planning since the plot is so small and only holds a few children.

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I think for me one of the most interesting aspects of the Babyland sections is the type of sculpture chosen for the space. In Greenwood there is an angel looking down at her empty hands, as if she had been cradling a child and looked down to find that it was suddenly gone. I suppose it’s also a way for grieving parents to imagine their own children held in those heavenly arms and perhaps find some comfort in that.

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Evergreen

“I feel like I can really breathe in here. Like I can finally take a deep breath,” Caroline said as we stood shoulder to shoulder, looking into the thick green forest around us. There was a pungent smell of wet leaves and earth and it was pleasant to inhale. This place had a feeling to it, not only the feeling of being the only two people on a vast property, but there was a feeling of being absorbed by a giant living organism, of being a part of it. Evergreen was embracing us with its grassy arms.

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The trees towered over our heads, draped with ivy and other creeping vines that had taken over during the years. We stood on the path in Richmond’s historic African-American cemetery, Evergreen, which is actually a total of four different cemeteries. The path had at some point been a paved road and it was now obscured by weeds and poison ivy, showing little more than a footpath when at one point it could accommodate cars. Any open space between trees was covered with vines, climbing roses that someone had lovingly planted at one time, and lillies that had been planted on top of graves and had taken over during the years. They now created spots of bright orange in the verdant landscape. It was the greenest place I had ever seen, and remarkably beautiful. Evergreen lived up to it’s name. We stood in the muffled woods of the 60 acre cemetery staring in wonder all around us, listening to the drops of water hitting the leaves and birds singing in the tops of the trees. The white sunlight was dappled and barely reached us beneath the canopy and as a result the cemetery felt like a steam bath after the recent rain. My shirt was stuck to my back and shoulders within minutes; my bangs glued themselves to my forehead.

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The first day we stayed close to the car, looking around at the tops of headstones peeking through the foliage. Gates and ornate wrought iron fences were woven with weeds and tall grass, making it difficult to see the designs. A large mown path bisected the first part of the cemetery and when we walked down it we saw more and more headstones begin to reveal themselves to us through the plant life. Not only was the place choked with weeds, it was full of burials too. The stones we saw were large and ornate and varied in design. There were supposed to be over 6,000 burials here, and we could see maybe 5% of them.

Part of what protects Evergreen right now is that you’d have to be a damn fool to veer off the path for even a second since you literally can’t see the ground for the weeds. There’s no telling what lives in that place, and there is a water source nearby so it’s the perfect environment for snakes and other wildlife. The other thing protecting it is the presence of volunteers that are trying to restore it bit by bit on regular work days. When people come to a place, vandalism usually stops. Vandals like secrecy and for a long time, this place was essentially that- a secret. While I was in Richmond we asked several people if they had heard of the cemetery and all of them said no. Everyone had heard of Hollywood Cemetery though, known for it’s showy beauty and famous burials. In my opinion this cemetery is just as valuable as a historic resource, but they did not set themselves up for perpetual care when they established the cemetery in 1891. We were standing in the consequences of that decision.

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The next morning over omelettes at Ellwood’s we decided to go back. Just for a few minutes we said. Just to see what was at the end of the path. I had heard of a mausoleum on the property and wanted to see if we could find it, plus, I wanted to see any land that the volunteers had been able to clear. The mausoleum had been targeted by vandals several times over the years, starting sometime in the 70’s when the cemetery began to be left to its own devices and people stopped visiting. However, it had been my impression that each time it would be repaired and would continue to be repaired after every act of vandalism.

So we found ourselves surrounded again by the comforting green of the cemetery within a couple of hours, and we walked with purpose. When the woods in front of the path began to clear we were astonished to find that we were on top of a hill and the hill had in fact been cleared. We saw a Madonna…then an angel…then a beautiful obelisk surrounded by conch shells. I recognized some of the names I saw on headstones from my research. Paths led from the main area into the woods, which were filled with headstones and family plots with beautiful markers. Most were almost completely obscured by creeping ivy and small pink roses. It looked like something out of a dream.

We chose a path at random and found ourselves in a kudzu covered field with monuments poking out of the vines here and there. It was vast and beautiful, and the mystery of what lay beneath the green carpet of plants was almost too much for me to bear. I wanted leather gloves and a herd of hungry goats. NOW. Past that was a cleared field that held a large amount of smaller monuments and was very pretty. But no mausoleum. I felt like it was the way we had come and that we’d missed it.

We circled the area slowly one more time and I saw a tiny dirt track that had been carved out of the ivy, leading farther into the woods. The path was hard packed dirt and had clearly been walked sometime recently, and it was slick from the rain. I started down it. After a couple of minutes I looked up to find a green box in the woods. Literally, the entire mausoleum was draped in ivy on 2 sides. Caroline caught up to me and we jumped down to it from the path. It appeared that the stairs were missing, though we later noticed that railing ran next to the structure that we had not observed at the time.

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When we got to the front though, things changed. In fact, the whole trip changed. At some point the doors had been removed and the opening had been walled up by concrete block. This had been smashed with a sledgehammer and the coffins inside had been pulled down from their shelves and opened. The hardware had been pulled off and was most likely sold. The remains were most likely gone as well because the coffins had been wrenched open with a crowbar and on one, since they couldn’t get it off the shelf they had gone through the underside of it for the remains. I didn’t look for more than a few seconds. Caroline stood beside me, quiet.

I was nauseous when I turned away, and I was trembling all over. I started rubbing my face with my hands and my skin felt gritty and slick with sweat and tears. I’d started crying. Caroline and I walked quietly back to the car, but on the way we stopped one more time under the tall trees and inhaled deeply.

“Let’s go get a drink,” she said, and we left. I cried more in the car, but Caroline knew exactly what to say to me. I think it’s a gift that mothers have.

Because we were hot and thirsty, and because the wine was cold and delicious, I ended up wobbling around Cary Town for the next hour or so with puffy, dilated eyes and a buzz. At the wine bar we decided that in the fall I would travel back and we would go visit again when some of the foliage had died off. Maybe we could see more. I didn’t know that I’d go look for the mausoleum again, that had just been so sad. It takes tremendous violence to do something like that and it was that knowledge that scared me. I suppose that when the same thing keeps happening and there’s no money and no visitors anyway, then the repairs just stop and people give up. This was a turning point for me and I’m not sure yet what will come of it.

My greatest wish would be to raise a truckload of money for the people working on Evergreen. For the time being, until I figure some things out, you can make a donation and learn more here.

We as human beings determine the value of a place by how we treat it, and I am so grateful for people who want to restore this cemetery to it’s former glory, though even as it is, it’s glorious. If you visit please take the greatest care when on the property.

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Lake Hill Cemetery in Orlo Vista

Sometimes things just catch your attention for no specific reason, and that is how I ended up researching this couple in Lake Hill Cemetery. Even though I was interested in them both, I will admit that women’s stories really fascinate me and I spent a bit more time on Katharina Gemeinhardt’s story than I did her husband.

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A handmade headstone in Lake Hill Cemetery.

But first, a little bit about the mysterious Lake Hill Cemetery in Orlando. It’s in the Orlo Vista area off of Old Winter Garden Road, and it’s small cemetery with about 1000 interments and is full of personal mementos left on the graves. On the right side of the cemetery you’ll find older stones that date back to the mid-1800’s, including a large section for the Patrick family. On the other side you find a number of interesting handmade stones and some graves with a little more creativity. (Mr. Short Legs made me stop and stare.)

Researching this cemetery has been challenging, and one surprise that I got was that the cemetery was once called the Patrick Cemetery, but I was unable to find out the year that it was renamed or why. I found the name Patrick Cemetery on three of the burial records I located for the Gemeinhardt family, some of which are laid to rest there, including Katharina. The cemetery is close to the Lake Hill Baptist Church which may be why it was renamed, either due to ownership or because the cemetery may have once served the needs of that congregation.

The Lake Hill cemetery is a deeply personal one, with a lot of mementos crowding the tops of the graves. We visited at Christmas and two of the graves even had complete, decorated Christmas trees sitting on them. Several of the graves have teacups and saucers, waiting to be filled. (An article that mentions the history of the cemetery and a clean-up in 1991 and can be found here.)

There is a discreet visitor to the cemetery that leaves magical objects such as black feathers and burned candles in different containers, or just stuck into the ground on top of the graves. It makes the visits more interesting when I’m wondering what will be there the next time I go.   

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Four of the family members are buried here.

The headstones for one particular family stood out to me, they have some scroll work on them and the names are unusual, which proved to be challenging when I was looking them up on Ancestry. Katharina was listed under different variations on several different documents, including her ship’s passage from Germany. She was Kate, Katherine, and Katharina, while her husband was William and Wilhelm. Katharina’s middle name was a variation of Rachel that also caused the poor census takers in the 20’s and 30’s some confusion. I found Rachel and Rachiel. She and William were married in 1885 on August 18 in Missouri, the same year that she came to America from Germany. Think of all that change in one year- a new country and a new husband fourteen years older than she was, and children very soon after. It would be extremely challenging.

I moved to Texas from Florida in my 20’s and my hair fell out for 3 months, so I can’t imagine how my body would react to something this drastic.

William (1851-1937) immigrated to the states in 1869, and his older brother John (1843-1932) immigrated two years earlier in 1867. Census records indicate that the family spoke English and owned their own property, but while it specifies that John was a farmer and worked in orange groves, it does not specify what William did. Together, he and Katharina had eight children. Both of their parents were born in Germany, and they were the first generation in the states. John had a wife and 2 children who are buried elsewhere. 

I was unable to find a burial record for William, but there was one for his wife that strangely did not list a cause of death. She outlived her husband by 9 years and was laid to rest beside him and one of their children. 

Only one of their 8 children is buried in this small plot, and that was Thomas J. 1889-1916, who died from Tuberculosis.

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Orlando’s first settler.

This cemetery boasts that the first settler in Orlando is buried there, a Captain Aaron Jernigan 1813-1891. He is here with his family, and there is a small memorial to him at the front of the property. I feel like this space holds a lot of history and many incredible stories, and hope to do more research in the future for additional posts.

The Gemeinhardt family is to the right of the cemetery toward the middle. Look out for candles!