Cleaning Page Jackson Cemetery

First of all, this is my 50th post! I am very excited about this and hope to continue for another 50 posts and at least another 50 new cemeteries this year. Yay!

A couple of weeks ago 4 of us met to work on picking up trash in the Page Jackson Cemetery in Sanford, Florida. Many of you who read this blog know that this is probably one of my favorite cemeteries in Central Florida. It’s never a boring trip when I visit this place and I always discover something new. I was armed that day with a new trash grabber (The Deluxe Gopher 2) that made me feel like I was 90 years old when I bought it, but it was so worth the ten dollars! For one thing, there were a lot of things laying around that I wouldn’t want to touch with my bare hands, and it also saved my back from a few days of muscle relaxers and pain. I didn’t realize that these things can not only be used for trash pick-up but also to knock weeds and branches out of the way when you’re navigating the Florida scrub brush on this property. Maybe I should get a machete too.

I knew the moment that I pulled up that it was going to be a successful morning because Ariel’s personal hearse was parked on the dirt lane and it just set the tone for the whole day, especially since it had two big dogs looking out of the back, their sweet faces staring longingly at us while framed by funereal red curtains. Maryanne was there too, and while I unloaded the cooler from my car she cheerfully informed me that she had brought disposable gloves for everyone. We all snapped them on, unloaded the trash bags, and got to work. Later in the morning Heather joined us and so between the 4 of us we had 2 bloggers, one funeral records addict (especially Carey Hand), one Hospice volunteer and educator, one funeral professional, and one person who can find anything genealogy related if she has a computer in front of her. The conversation was lively.

This is a failing cemetery, meaning that it really doesn’t matter what happens from this point forward because it will never be unearthed from the rapidly encroaching saplings and vines. My wish for this cemetery is that it be mapped every few years, and kept clean and safe for people to come and visit their loved ones even if it means a hike through some brush. That’s really all that can be expected and even that seems like too much to ask for when you look at the place and realize that this is the way it’s looked for years, and that neglect has been a part of the history here. I’d love it if it could just be under control in some way but this is Florida, and Florida plants rarely cooperate. We took our time going through, learning new graves along the way and picking up massive amounts of trash as we went, everything from pairs of shoes to (lots) of underwear and food wrappers. Tons of beer cans. Thankfully no condoms, though all of the underthings lying around in the back of the cemetery gave me a pretty good shudder anyway. Seeing Maryanne put her head into a grave to try to figure out what caused the hole in the concrete (air bubble) didn’t shock me as bad as the underwear did.

There is one grave there that has always stood out to me. It’s a plain ledger stone that’s been smashed, most likely deliberately, and is in several large pieces that jut out at odd angles like a mouthful of crooked teeth. That night I got home and looked up Find A Grave, and I went through all of the photos of the headstones until I found that marker. His name on Find A Grave is listed as Dr. Wallace Thomas Eaverly.  He was a Prescription Clerk with a third grade education. He’d worked in a drugstore pharmacy for part of his career and he died at the age of 32 in 1931, leaving a young family behind. He was somebody in the community- just like everyone else here- and it broke my heart all over again to think of his final resting place coming to this sad end, with moss growing in between the cracks in the concrete and no name for people to read as they passed by. These people built the Sanford community and Seminole County.

In the early afternoon we strolled over to Shiloh to pick up some trash back there and look around. There were some new burials and also an open grave that was covered by a piece of plywood, patiently waiting for it’s occupant to arrive. The vault was already in the ground; sand was piled on top of the grave next to it in a huge, ugly pile. This cemetery in its open field with it’s 300 plus burials is mostly clean. It’s also an African-American cemetery like Page Jackson, but if you stand at the front of the cemetery and look into the trees you see the burials in Page Jackson obscured by woods and a massive trash pile that’s grown steadily over the last year. There are burial markers right next to it, if not underneath it.

 

That night I was nursing a sunburn and itchy legs, and the next day I was actually sore from clomping all over those woods in heavy rubber boots, but it was worth it.

Our next clean-up day is planned for April 17th. It’s a Monday this time, but if you’d like to come please email me at marnie.bench@gmail.com. We’d love to see you there!

The Kissimmee Pioneer Cemetery Failure- and the Oakland Cemetery in Haines City

On the 4th of July weekend we decided to set a day aside for adventure. We planned to drive to the Fort Kissimmee Pioneer Cemetery in Avon Park and see if we recognized any of the names from the other pioneer cemeteries we had visited. We are starting to remember names and the places where people settled and died from all of our visits this year, and this cemetery was supposed to be a good one. I also had a new camera to try out and I felt some excitement about that.

That vanished when we took what we believed was a shortcut and ended up in the middle of no damn where with nothing but orange groves all around. There was nothing- not even a gas station, for miles. Several times when we tried to get back on track we found our phones didn’t have a signal and so the only thing to do was keep going. By the time we found the place I was over it. I wanted a sandwich and an iced tea and a lot of fries. The cemetery resides on an old bombing range owned by the government, and when we pulled up and told them that we wanted to hike out to the cemetery the elderly gentleman running the booth said, “Well, what d’you want to go out there for?”

We just stared at him, because it was an actual wildlife preserve and DID in fact offer hiking, despite being government owned land.

He told us to drive forward for another half a mile until we got to building 600, and he handed us a shitty map. We turned the wrong way- corrected, and then found the building. I asked Shawn to go inside so I could sulk for a minute and try to get myself into a better mood. He came back out to the car and looked at me through the open window, his face blank.

“It’s ten bucks apiece to go in, and we have to go in this building and watch a video on safety since it used to be a bombing range.”

I rolled the window back up and waited for him to get in. By the time we passed the old guy at the gate we were laughing. We’d never worked so hard to go look at a bunch of tombstones, but after 3 hours in the car, we didn’t even want to. The person in building 600 had also mentioned that the entire cemetery is surrounded with a fence and a locked gate and that we couldn’t go in anyway, we could just kind of hang on the fence in the hundred degree heat and stare at it like the bad kids at the playground.

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We drove back toward Orlando taking a different route, and as soon as we got to Haines City we knew we needed to stop at Zaxby’s for fries and chicken fingers. While there we looked up local cemeteries to see what we could find, and there was one right down the road. We got back in the Jeep and decided to go to the smaller one, Oakland, and leave the larger one (Forest Hill) for the next time we were driving through.

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Oakland is a two part cemetery. A 2 lane road bisects it and one side is shiny new headstones and greener grass, the other side is older, well kept, but clearly more creative. That’s the side we decided to visit. The other side was also set up for a funeral service and we wanted to make ourselves scarce for that.

We got out at the back of the property and started walking through. It was hot, bleak, sandy, and didn’t have a speck of shade. There were some huge areas of nothing but ledger stones, and some good examples of handmade stones. Many of the graves were unmarked, and some were painted in bright colors. Many families had gone out with rope and had marked off their family plots themselves. It was a kind of do-it-yourself cemetery. Not particularly unusual. Not very old. Largely African-American and Hispanic families interred here.

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One side backed up to some houses nearby, and there was a field on the other side. The cemetery was not fenced and the road in front was the only entrance and exit.

Here is why these facts stand out- in 2009 a local funeral director dumped a body bag there full of organs from a client he had embalmed the same week. He said the organs were decomposing and he didn’t want them in the funeral home or with the body because of the smell. He left the man’s identification on the bag, and it was traced right back to his funeral home because he had performed his embalming and funeral services (minus the complete cavity embalming, apparently). After his arrest he said that he had been dumping organs there since 2000, but this was never able to be verified. The poor man who led to his arrest was actually buried in another cemetery- not in Oakland.

So many questions! First- why? Embalmers are trained to deal with these situations on a daily basis and most of them are damn good at it. There’s actually a lot they can do to combat smells in facilities and with bodies, so this is just unthinkable. Second- HOW? This cemetery has houses nearby, no fence, a busy road, and is clearly an active, maintained cemetery. There’s no privacy here. I have no idea how he was doing this. It was the most gruesome story I’ve run across while researching cemeteries.

On the way out I walked toward the front to get a photo of a sky-blue gravestone and heard a soft ticking noise nearby. It was consistent.

I looked around and finally found it; one grave was covered with solar activated toys and they were swinging and nodding away in the middle of the hot afternoon. There was no other movement anywhere.

And I totally forgot to use my new camera.

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La Grange Community Church and Cemetery

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LaGrange Community Church.

This place was pretty awesome, though I do have a thing for cemeteries with dirt roads running through them, especially if there’s a gorgeous church on the property. The La Grange Community Church was built in 1872 and it still stands like a sentinel at the front of the cemetery. It’s been tweaked here and there with a bay window added to the front and the second story was removed, but it is still such a treasure because the founders of all of these small cities in this area are commemorated here. You’ll see the last name Mims on the historical marker- and there is a whole plot for the Titus family in the cemetery that includes Henry Titus, the founder of Titusville.  The first pastor is poignantly buried very close to the front of the church, his name was W. N. Chadoin and he passed away in 1904. He has a hall named after him at Stetson University according to one source. You can tour the church on the 3rd Saturday of each month from 10-12 according to the website. I’m definitely going back to do that.

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Dirt roads.

The cemetery is a sandy one, and with the dirt track running through it I felt like I really was there with the pioneers, walking through on a hot Sunday afternoon. The major difference is that the cemetery is packed and at the time it would not have looked like it does now. In one corner people are literally so close that you can’t walk from grave to grave without feeling like you’re stepping on someone. In that same corner there is a cedar tree and underneath it is a folding chair painted a pale pink color. It’s unfolded, quite close to the head of one of the graves and it was easy to imagine someone sitting there often, talking to a loved one nearby.

One of the graves in the same section had been decorated with brightly colored duct tape, which I had never seen before in a cemetery. The tape didn’t really stick to the concrete, but some of the stripes still remained and it was definitely bold compared with the other stones nearby. The cemetery association has been hard at work though, not only were there trash cans full of old flowers and debris waiting to be picked up, but there were also small stones with names on them to commemorate people who were known to be buried there before 1900, but without any known plot. They’re there, they just aren’t sure where. I loved it that they did this.

Pink chair.
Pink chair.

After a long walk through the cemetery we came back to the church and happened to notice that we were being calmly observed by two emus and a pack of pygmy goats living on the lot next door. Some of the goats had recently had kids and they were tiny little things with the cutest bleats I’ve ever heard.

I wanted them all.

The emus came right up to the fence to gaze at us with their interesting dark eyes, and they seemed to like our company because they stayed right next to us the whole time we stood there. We left after communing with them for a few minutes. I’ve always liked them, but the ones I’ve met on friend’s farms have been pretty weird and frantic. These were calm.

Henry Titus.
Henry Titus.

On the way to the beach we happened to find one more cemetery on what had been Canaveral property in the 60’s, but this one was very different. It is one grave belonging to Emma Watton, and it has been fenced off and carefully preserved with one stone marker. Small stuffed toys had been tied to the fence by passers-by and it was a touching scene literally in the middle of no-damn-where, right in the middle of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It is rumored that there are 3 graves there, but there’s only the one marker and one name on the sign for Emma. She was a young girl who died of fever and she was buried there under a tree, but the tree died long ago. Again, I looked up to find that we were being observed but this time by a woman in dark sunglasses and a crazy outfit who was talking on her cell phone…in the middle of nothing but trees and grass. I probably imagined her after a few hours in the heat but she seemed real enough and disturbed that we were there.

After all of this we hit the beach for a little more time in the sun… and three days nursing my sunburn afterward. It was worth it though. The sky and the sea were incredibly blue that day.

 

 

The Church in the Woods

Way, way back in the woods in Marion County.

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Cedar Grove Methodist Church.

You turn off of the 2 lane highway onto a dirt road that goes a mile back into the Florida scrub. There’s no other turnoffs, no driveways, nothing to show that you’re actually going…somewhere. And then when you’re starting to get all sweaty and worried about how in the heck you’re supposed to turn your car around in the middle of this forest- a clearing appears and there in the middle of it is the cutest little Methodist church you’ve ever seen, and there’s a cemetery behind it.

This church is a well protected site and there are signs everywhere saying that you’re on camera. So behave yourself. We did, for once. The church has a charmingly misspelled sign that reads Cedar Grove Cemetary, which is one of my pet peeves especially since it’s showing up in glaring red as I write this. However, that’s the only fault I could find with this beautiful place. It was well maintained and we never saw another soul as we looked around late one Sunday afternoon. This was a mission church and they have owned the cemetery since 1860. It appears that the church is most likely without running water since there is an outhouse (not even kidding) and a hand pump outside, which Shawn gleefully tried. Interment.net states that the church is no longer in use, and that the cemetery is full. A second source says that this is not the original church; this one was built around 1936 because the first one from 1860 burned down.

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Outhouse. No plumbing inside, apparently.

Well that just sucks. It’s one of the things that I don’t like about visiting historical sites. Everything has burned to the ground at least one time already.

My favorite stone was a hand-stamped one made of pale yellow stone for Annie Clara Brass, who was just a few month old when she died. Several of the stones in the cemetery were made by the same hand, and they’re beautiful. The Brass family also lost another daughter in 1900, Nina, who was 7 months old. Facts like these make my heart feel heavy when researching these sites. We went recently to the Powell Cemetery on Orange Avenue in Orlando and the dates made it clear just how many people there died from the Spanish Flu. I’m imaginative and these events are easy for me to picture, and then sometimes feel. Three people buried in Powell Cemetery died within one day of each other. It must have been horrible to witness in a small community.

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Anna Clara’s grave in Cedar Grove.

Another cemetery resident is Archie Brass, who was a local farmer. He married twice, first to Delia, who died, and later to Pennie (Pennie Brass. What a name!) who he later divorced. Delia is buried in the cemetery but Pennie is not. His draft records from 1917 indicate that he was ‘stout’ and had brown eyes and black hair. He was on that land for at least 30 years according to the census- and both of his parents were born in Florida as well.

This area is considered the Gaiter settlement, and nearby was Camp Izard, site of a siege between 1500 Seminole Indians and General Gaines in 1836 which lasted nearly 2 weeks. In 1842 the site was abandoned. Florida became a state in 1845, a few years after the bloodbath. 15 years later the original church was erected on this site.

When we wandered through that day I looked down and found myself standing in a pile of white bones. This would be odd but it’s actually the second time this has happened to me in a cemetery, the first time was in Oakland Cemetery and the victim was a rooster that had been killed some time ago, the tiny bones of the neck and spine looked at first like teeth until I noticed the feathers and leg bones scattered everywhere. This time it was a deer that had died and had completely decomposed down to the bone. The spine was still arced in a gentle curve on top of the pine needles, the leg bones were thick and sturdy and for a few minutes I couldn’t figure out what it was. The jawbone still had the delicate teeth attached. The skull was sadly missing. I sent a photo to a friend of mine that has done a lot of biology work for his art and he pronounced, “It’s a deer”. It had been there undisturbed for so long that I would have wondered if people ever visited, except that the property had been raked and weeded.

If you find yourself in Marion County near Dunnellon anytime soon, look this place up. There’s so much history here that it’s hard to write the post in a concise manner. Just go.

 

 

 

 

The Sims Mausoleum at the Ocoee Cemetery

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The Sims Vault, Ocoee, Cemetery.

When you pull into the gates of the Ocoee Cemetery this monument looks like a giant blue turtle resting in a very colorful landscape. I’ve never seen one like it, the entire thing is constructed of blue tiles and it’s completely solid without even an air vent to mar its rounded appearance. There was some slight damage to the back where a few tiles have fallen off, and as I took a closer look I noticed the small eyes of a brown lizard looking back at me. It was a good hiding spot.

Otis Sims was a dentist in Ocoee and Winter Garden for many years, and his young daughter died at age 19, his wife following her five years later. His wife is called Stella C. on her grave marker, but in several records she was listed as Cena, so research was a bit complicated and there didn’t seem to be much information about them. In one funeral record it lists the vault as being made of brick, so perhaps at some later date the blue tile was added. Either way, it’s fancy and impressive. Fun fact- in 1918 and 1923 the engraved plates that cover the graves cost the family 5 dollars; it cost more for the masons to install them than it did for the engraved plates themselves. The one at the top of the mausoleum was $3.50.

I had expected this cemetery to be an older place with no recent burials, but it was a vibrant, often visited and perfectly maintained place; it was quite beautiful. The graves seemed to be loaded with brightly colored flowers and mementos, and when you stood at the front and looked at the whole thing it was a landscape dotted with happy colors. According to the website there are no plots available, only places in the small, modern columbarium in the back of the property.

This is the oldest cemetery in Ocoee and has some beautiful stones and monuments, and also some tragic ones, including two mothers who are buried with their infants. Also, William Blakely, the jack-of-all-trades in this area from back in the day is buried here. His stone says that he was a pioneer, and indeed he was. In late 1800’s to early 1900’s he was the school principal, Postmaster, and Justice of the Peace for the city.  He’s under a huge oak tree in the back of the property and apparently he got one of the prettiest shady spots in the cemetery.

With that many jobs I’m sure death came as a much-needed break.

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The green Virgin Mary statue.

The best source of information on this location is your own 2 feet and a good pair of tennis shoes, there’s not a whole lot online unless you’re looking for ghost stories. There are also quite a few handmade markers and inscriptions here which are always worth seeing. My favorite tribute was a Virgin Mary statue painted bright acid green, standing on a piece of astro-turf, and with a home-made metal cross behind her. Truly one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen in a cemetery.