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.

 

Adamsville Cemetery…Somewhere In Florida

I’ve been really sick for the last 3 weeks so I’m behind on a lot of things including cemetery visits, writing, and phone calls since I’ve been coughing so much. Thankfully this week Shawn and I have some time off together and will be running around to find some new places to visit. I’m excited to get out of the house. The new job that I started 2 months ago has been the most miserable work experience I’ve ever had, so I’m on the hunt for other things in my life besides cemeteries. But let’s talk about pleasant things instead, like the Adamsville Cemetery.

Adamsville Cemetery is said to be in Levy County in one source, and Sumter County in another. I vote for Sumter being correct. We didn’t really start out with a plan to go see it, but I knew it was on the way to where we were going and figured we’d do a drive by. However, what caused us to stop was not the actual cemetery (though that turned out to be a treasure), it was the small mausoleum that we passed that was literally in the church parking lot. It was the strangest placement for a mausoleum I’ve ever seen, as though they weren’t sure where it would look best but hell, they really wanted one… and hey, there’s a spot right there that’s only being used to park cars on Sunday. It was the true 1960’s style that I’ve seen in several places in Florida (including another almost identical model in Sumter county), and it was pretty hideous. The other one that I’ve seen like that had an alarming smell coming from it and I left that cemetery in a hurry. It happens sometimes.

On this day, Maryanne and I stood there quietly soaking in it’s odd placement while she smoked a cigarette and I just stared blankly.  Needless to say, we both had to get a photo with it.

On one side of the street you’ll find the new memorial park, and on the other, beckoning to you from the shady gloom, is the old section of the cemetery. There are lots of great examples of funerary art here. It’s said to be the oldest cemetery in this county, dating back to what one source said was 1902, but it’s way older than that since we saw stones dating back to the 1880’s and wooden markers as well.

The wooden markers were laid flat on the ground, almost obscured by the carpet of green that cloaks this cemetery and makes it so beautiful and unusual for Florida. We would have missed them if we hadn’t gone down that row, but we saw the wood and knew at once what we were looking at. However, we were in for a surprise. Maryanne lifted one by the top to see if there was any writing or carving and while they were so faded that we couldn’t read anything, they were anthropomorphic styled markers. I was nearly beside myself with excitement. These markers are not ones that we see every day around here. In fact, I’ve only ever seen one and it was made of concrete in Melbourne (in the Shady Oaks Cemetery). The shape is supposed to represent the head and shoulders of a human. They’re quite beautiful to begin with, but to see them in wood was really wonderful. Florida’s wooden markers don’t last too long, but there are still some great examples here and there that have survived our humidity and rainfall. There are a couple of great examples left in Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando.

The cemetery’s history can be read on Find A Grave, and there’s a lot of material to cover so I won’t include a synopsis here, but the church and the cemeteries are the last pieces of what used to be the Adamsville community. I can’t really convey the dark, mysterious beauty of this cemetery, due largely to the very old Cypress trees on the property. I will say that this is a must-see for any taphophile in Florida. Find A Grave has some semblance of directions to it and the mausoleum makes a handy landmark!

 

Before the Hurricane

Maryanne and I were separated at birth. I’m sure of that. We started talking in a Facebook cemetery group and when we met in person a year later (for tea in a local tearoom) we were the only women in there amid a flurry of floral dresses and hats that were mostly dressed down, and we were the only two people in the place talking about embalming techniques. Neither of us is high maintenance. Both of us think cremation is the way to go. Neither of us is afraid of dead people.

Maryanne wanted to go see a family member in a cemetery in Chiefland, Florida, two hours from Orlando, and she asked me to go. I will always go visit a cemetery with someone, so I immediately said yes and asked what kind of snacks to bring.

We jumped in the car at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday before the hurricane was supposed to hit over the weekend. Since we’ve both lived in Florida for years neither of us was panicked and both of us felt prepared. However, the rest of the Floridians had other ideas. It took us two and a half hours to get to Adamsville Cemetery, which you’ll see in another post, and a total of five hours to get to Chiefland Cemetery.

Chiefland is small and situated in Levy county, which I was unaware of until we passed the sign. The population is about 2,300, and it’s rural. Horses and agriculture everywhere. We had to take 2 dirt roads to get to the cemetery, and when we finally found it after five hours in the car it felt like a miracle. We got out gratefully, stretched, and it immediately began to rain.

Maryanne handed me a brightly striped umbrella and we started down the aisles of headstones. At the back of the cemetery was a section for the slaves of the Hardee family, which are numerous in the cemetery. The large flat stone reads, Buried Here Are Faithful Servants of Isaac  P.  Hardee. The family is about 20 steps away from this section, which is something I’ve never seen. I wish that the servants had been named, of course, but I still loved seeing the tribute. Mister Hardee himself was right there and his original stone was on the ground, barely legible, but it had been framed in concrete and a new stone in the same style and with the exact same font had been erected in its place. I loved seeing the original and also being able to read the new one, which was quite unusual in it’s simplicity. It was actually my favorite stone that I saw that day.

Maryanne had found her family member by that time, and she told me that she was named after her. Marie Theresa Hampton was less than a year old when she died on August 19, 1949. Maryanne told me that the story itself was quite tragic and that the little girl had a sad and horrible death with far reaching repercussions, but I honestly feel that the story is for her to tell, and so she may be doing a blog post about her in the future. The little grave was beautifully bright amid all of the darker headstones, and Maryanne bent down to touch the stone for a minute before placing pink flowers on the grave. We said the next time we came we’d bring D-2 solution and clean her headstone.

The cemetery itself is beautiful and has a gazebo with a tin roof and trees all around, so the rain was very loud at times, but that only added to the experience for me. An even greater surprise was seeing the cemetery map, well labeled and preserved, and….legible! I was thrilled. I love seeing the maps but they’re not easy to find. Some of the larger cemeteries will provide a map for you at their offices, and I keep them and frame them when I get one.

Near the back of the cemetery there are two graves with a very unusual feature, something I’d never seen before. The better example of the two simply reads INFANT in block letters that are painted on glass and then embedded in the concrete grave topper. They were quite old but in perfect condition.

Before we got back in the car to fight the traffic on the way home we stood there for awhile, me under the umbrella and Maryanne smoking. She talked about possibly having Marie disinterred and moved to her family cemetery in Orlando, which would mean that the little girl would get to lay next to her parents. I asked about costs, and whether there would be anything left to move at this point, but she felt there might be something. She planned to talk to her parents about it when she saw them over the weekend. She is the only Hampton in the cemetery.

There can be so much emotion in a place like this, when you bend down to touch the stone of that loved one and you’re not seeing the stone, you’re seeing their history and their connection to you. Maryanne certainly never met Marie, but she loves her. It’s obvious. It made me want to visit Kentucky and the cemetery where my family members are buried, just to see what that feels like since I didn’t know them personally. I know them through story and on paper, from the family genealogy my aunts have worked on for years. It’s days like this that make me realize how important markers are for those left behind and why I Iove cemeteries so much.

It took us three hours to get home. I had gummy bears and a protein bar for dinner. We passed gas stations with lines running out of the parking lot and down the street. We stopped at a Publix and the water aisle was empty. Central Florida was scared.

If you’re in Florida I hope you fared well during Irma- and I apologize for the photo quality in this post.

Locke Family Cemetery on Boggy Creek Road

This one was a surprise. I’m not even sure how to describe how I got there, Shawn and I were talking and I was fiddling with the music the entire time we were driving. It was hot. I needed a snack. I’d run out of iced tea from Starbucks already. You get the picture.

When we finally pulled up to the gate we found that it was indeed a small family cemetery on the side of the road, and that we had to park on the shoulder because there wasn’t designated parking. The first thing we saw was a big sign that said No Trespassing, and another that said the cemetery was monitored by video surveillance. We ignored them both and unlatched the gate to walk in since it was broad daylight and the gate wasn’t locked. I did take a quick look around though and I saw that the telephone pole next to the cemetery had a floodlight on it aimed at the cemetery, and I know that goes a long way toward preventing vandalism. If I heeded by every No Trespassing sign that I saw I’d never get any writing done because I’d be avoiding every cemetery I’ve ever been in. I usually will research them first to see if they’re privately owned. If so I’ll still visit anyway and see if the gate is locked. If it is, I don’t go in.

This cemetery is OLD, which was another surprise. Almost all of the names are Lock or Locke, but supposedly there is a Jane Green buried there who was in a specific type of trade and ‘worked’ with the cattlemen in the area. Having once dated a farmer who raised cattle for breed stock, I have to say I do not blame her one bit. Nothing makes my hormones stir like a man on a horse, but that isn’t really relevant. Whether or not the story about Jane is actually true remains a mystery, but it’s the legend, and I remember stopping in wonder at her modern headstone because she lived to be 99 years old.

There are some beautiful hand stamped headstones in the center rows that date back to 1892 and 1898. My favorite of the two features a star motif stamped into the top curve of the stone and the epitaph reads “She Died Triumph In The Lord”. Her name was also unusual, Marzila Lock.

When you walk though this cemetery is seems like it’s another sandy lot filled with burrs and old headstones, but when you stand back and view it from the front you notice that a large section is shaded by a beautiful oak tree, and I stood for a moment imagining those strong roots carefully holding the people together underground. All of my shots from the gate were beautiful.

 

Find A Grave shows 67 burials on the lot but I’m pretty sure there were more given the age of the cemetery, and there are a surprising number of children buried here. 12 out of the 67, in fact.

And finally, a particularly nice tribute on Find A Grave is this one for Cennie Tison Lock, and it shows how large this family really was. Enjoy.

Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery in Duval County

Sounds like something from a storybook, right? When I was a kid I loved a book called The Magical Drawings of Mooney B. Finch, and I read it until it fell apart. That was the first thing I thought of when my mom drove me up to the gates of this historic cemetery. She loves cemeteries too and will scout out new locations for me to see when I go visit her, and she almost always goes with me. One time last year I did sneak off to see one that she told me probably wasn’t safe to go to by myself, and I told her about it afterwards.

“Well, how was it? ” she asked.

“I think it was fine. I never saw anyone.”

She just smiled and said she wanted to go with me next time.

The Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery is a surprise. It’s set way back in what’s part neighborhood, part business/warehouse area- which is how Jacksonville is designed anyway. There’s wasn’t a lot of reason applied to the layout. This is a small cemetery and the only hazard I can think to warn you about ahead of time is that the ground can be quite spongy. My mom walks with a cane and was basically doing ground testing while she was walking around because her cane kept sinking.

The cemetery was established on March 1st, 1864 after a short battle (the Battle of Cedar Creek), and the creek is nearby and is actually quite sizeable. There is also a historical marker there and you can get out and take pictures because even though it’s on a busy road, there is a place to pull over and a sidewalk. The death toll for the day included 7 Confederates, 2 Union, with others wounded and some captured. Writing about battles is not my strong suit, so I’m including the Wikipedia article. The cemetery was started on the day of the battle; the dead were buried there, and it was used for some time though it is very small, with only about 114 interments. Captain Mooney is there also- and his veteran’s headstone doesn’t have a birth date or death date on it.

There are some wonderful headstones here and quite a few handmade ones. I’ve been to this cemetery twice, and the first time I noticed four graves, looked at the stones, and must have blanked out because I didn’t notice that all four graves had the same death date. Shawn and my mom called me over to look on this visit, and I took photos to do some research. Emma, Dora, and Mary Silcox all died on June 26, 1927, along with their friend Frances Norton. Mary was 15, Dora was 12, and Emma was 9 years old. Frances was a friend of the family and was only 19. They drowned during a boating accident at Clearwater Lake in Jacksonville, which is now a place to hike and fish. I can’t imagine what that family went through losing three of their children and a close friend in one day.

Private James S. Turknett is also buried here even though the  Turknett Cemetery is right down the road- it’s connected to the Smith Cemetery. The Turknett’s are buried in the back and the gate to that part of the cemetery has a bright blue sign that reads Turknett Cemetery, while on the other side it says Smith Cemetery on a very formal plaque. There is also a third set of gates that are probably for hearse access that are large, fancy wrought iron and do not have any name on them. These two cemeteries are in the back of a neighborhood and there was yet another sign posted on a light pole warning about fees associated with disturbing graves or remains, and that the fine is up to 5,000 dollars, 5 years in jail, or both. It’s a 3rd degree felony and I wish more people would think it through before they decide to do something that stupid.

If you do find yourself in Jacksonville and want to see something a little more unusual before you head off to the Victorian glory of Evergreen or the Old City Cemetery downtown (best to keep your wits about you down there, that one is a little weird), then these three cemeteries are worth a look.

Camp Captain Mooney is now owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and it is always impeccable every time I go. Just be careful with your cane. Also, Shawn and I have a knack for finding bones in cemeteries (animals, thankfully) and this trip had a small surprise as well.

Rosalie Raymond White in Magnolia Cemetery

I’ve been reading recently about the prevalence of finding a likeness on a tombstone ever since I saw this grave last month. It’s quite rare to see a death mask on a tombstone, and the rumor is that the tiny face on this unusual marker is in fact a death mask, or a likeness taken after death.

Today there are various ways of including the person’s face on their tombstone- ceramic portraits are still popular, and now I’m starting to see more and more laser etching actually on the headstone, creating what is basically a black and white portrait of the person. While these are extraordinarily detailed and large, they don’t thrill me the same way that ceramics do. I think they’re beautiful in an old-fashioned sort of way, and they can be quite varied. One friend of mine actually saw one that had a couple captured while sleeping on the couch, both wearing horrible Christmas sweaters.

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However, a death mask is in a completely different class. I’ve seen pictures of headstones in Alabama created by artist/inventor Isaac Nettles. While they’re still called death masks, Mr. Nettles created these likenesses while the person was alive, and then incorporated the masks into headstones. They’re arresting, to say the least. The Mt. Nebo Cemetery is on my list of places to visit just to see these.

I’d heard about the baby grave in Magnolia Cemetery before we went to Charleston, and it was high on my list of headstones to find when we got there. But as it turns out so many times when we’re on these visits, we found it by chance. We were driving through just to get an idea of the massive cemetery layout when Shawn stopped the car and said, “Look at that!”

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We were parked right by it.

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Rosalie Raymond White’s  (d. 1882) headstone is actually a detailed bassinet, and her likeness is peering out of it with a green patina to her little face. I touched it but was unable to determine what the face was made of, but it had eyes that seemed to follow me uncannily as I walked around the plot. The bassinet was actually a planter and had flowers blooming in it that someone had kept up with, and small toys left by admirers littered the space. The plot itself was fascinating, and also sad. All of the stones were extremely detailed, including one for a child called Rosebud that was a sleeping baby ensconced in a kind of shell or shrine. Her marker does not have any dates and I assumed that she was stillborn (though I prefer the term born sleeping). The sad part was that out of all of Rosalie and Blake White’s six children, four died before they’d even survived a year. This plot backs up to the water that wanders through the cemetery, some parts back up to a pond and much of the property (including the beautiful mausoleum row) faces the marsh and unfortunately has the smell of the marsh, especially around the receiving tomb built in 1850. (Go inside it, it’s amazing and seats 4.)

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Magnolia Cemetery was opened in 1850 and is sprawling. We went three times, once to get a peek before they closed, then the same night for the Confederate Ghost Walk, and then the next day to see the mausoleums, which are outstanding and varied. Many of them were open, so you can wander inside and check out the architecture. I went in all of them that were open. Shawn did not, but to his credit he did go in the receiving vault which had cobwebs hanging like stalactites and smelled funny. The property is still an active cemetery serving the Charleston community and also has a gorgeous new mausoleum space on the premises. The Ghost Walk started from there so we got to spend some time walking around it under the full moon.

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The walk itself was really amazing, it was an hour and a half long moonlight tour with costumed reenactments of the highlights of Charleston history. It was 18 bucks and I would have done it again the next night if it was taking place again, but it’s only once a year so GO! I was having a great time until we got to the last stop. In the middle of the speech made by the uniformed actor the woman next to me took two steps back from the group and fainted, dropping to her knees as her husband tried to catch her fall.

That stirred things up a bit, as I’m sure you can imagine. Thankfully, she was okay and was sitting quietly on the steps of a family plot when we left, drinking water and surrounded by women in hoopskirts.

The Little Huntley Church and Cemetery

I saw this church while we were on our way to Boone, and I looked at Shawn and said, “I’m sorry, but you have to stop.” The sun was going down and we didn’t have much time, but I really wanted to see it.

So he stopped. We walked around for almost 30 minutes, took pictures, and looked in the windows. Country churches have always had my heart. I think it’s the idea of people gathering in a place where it was most likely their only chance to interact with their community once a week, because the rest of their lives were devoted to hard work on their farms, or taken up with other businesses. But I also think that you can feel devotion in these places. Devotion to God. To gathering together. To building a place by hand for this to happen.

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In my wanderings I’ve seen many small country churches, but this one stood out because it was quite primitive, with no steeple and a simple graveyard in the back of the sandy lot. I was so excited when I got out of the car I didn’t know what to look at first- the church or the graves.

I’m sure you know which one I headed for first.

Four small graves toward the front were marked with stones and had small pebbles covering them. They were child sized, and all quite close together. Toward the back we began to see taller gravestones that had beautiful elaborate text, all with the same scroll pattern at the top. Many of the dates could not be read, sadly, but it was still wonderful to see them, especially since they were most likely created by the same hand.

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I walked back up the lot to the church and stood at the front door. The white paint had turned a creamy peach color with the setting sun hitting it and it was just beautiful. I could hear the wood popping and creaking as I stood there on the new ramp they had built to cover the old stone steps leading into the church. But then I noticed a large crack between the two doors, which were closed with a simple padlock. I leaned forward, put my eye to the crack, and looked inside. The pews looked original, and they were dark with age. The church also didn’t appear to have electricity since there were gas lanterns hanging on the walls to provide light. It wasn’t a huge space, but the simplicity of the design and the white walls made the place seem calm and peaceful. Everything stood out on its own; you could see the separate elements.

But the smell! The smell of sunshine on old wood! It was incredible- strong and aromatic. It reminded me of being a kid and climbing up the hay bales to the top of the tobacco barn that my grandfather had on his property. I would lay on top of the bales and breathe in the scent of the wood and the hay, and I would listen to the creaks and moans of the old building, and splatters of rain on the tin roof. The smell of this tiny church took me right back there. The church faced a busy road and I know anyone driving by would see a woman pressed against the front doors, her face wedged as far into the crack between the doors as possible, but I didn’t care. I stood there until Shawn came up and asked to peek.

While he looked I walked over to look into the wavy glass windows to see inside a little better. I was on my tiptoes, and I noticed that in the pulpit there was an ornate upright piano and a painting of a bearded man hanging on the wall. My guess was that he was Joseph Huntley, the builder, because it sure wasn’t the Lord.

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The church was built in 1902 and Joseph Huntley was buried out back, I had been standing next to his grave when I took some of the photos. If I have the right Huntley, he didn’t get to enjoy his church very long. He died in 1903, a year after the church was completed.

I did read that the church is no longer in use on one website, and that it has services once a year in June on another website (Find A Grave).

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Earlier this year Caroline and I were driving back from Richmond on a cloudy afternoon and I was looking out the car window, watching the scenery whiz past. There were some woods, and then suddenly a vast cornfield with a very old, weathered church at the back of it. The crops came right up against the church, which had a small steeple. Most of the windows seemed to be gone. The white paint had peeled off with years of storms, snow, and sun, but to me it was absolutely perfect. We thought about turning around to try to stop and get photos, but it would have been difficult since it was literally right off the highway.

Most people have what I call a Million Dollar Dream. Its the one that starts with- If money were no object… and it goes from there. I never wanted a huge house or a Maserati, I’m happy with my education, and I think I have enough jewelry. My splurge would be on an old building- historic, really. Research. Restoration. Maybe a chunk of land. Advertising. Then I’d turn it into a memorial center for funerals and give the proceeds to…somebody.

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Earlier this year one of my friends was hospitalized, and we had no idea what was wrong for a few days. It was terrifying. One night after visiting the hospital I knew I couldn’t make it to my car before I started crying. I knew where the hospital chapel was though, and I went for it. Even though it had lamps, there were still fluorescent lights buzzing away overhead and the chapel was full of industrial chairs turned in all different directions. I sat for awhile, thinking about how I might have felt better braving the stares of others and heading to my car anyway. Modern spaces are a fact of life, but not necessarily a comfort, and I understand that facilities do their best with their funding and their corporate regulations. But still…

I think that if you go though something traumatic, it just might help ease the pain somewhat if you sit in a place that hundreds have sat in before you, and you can feel the weight of all those years, and prayers, and ancestors surrounding you. I’ve never once felt like that in a modern church, no matter how much I love the pastor or how many people attend, but I know that some other people do.

But…not me. If being in an old space comforts me in some way, it might comfort others as well when they need it most.

 

 

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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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.