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.

CRPT Review

St. Augustine is one of my favorite cities, so a couple of years ago when I heard that the next Cemetery Resource Protection Training was going to be held there I knew I’d be first in line when the registration started. The first CRPT I went to was in Deland 2 years ago and we worked in the beautiful Oakdale Cemetery, which reminded me of a tiny version of Bonaventure. The class was fairly small for that one, maybe 30 of us. This time there were over 60 and not only had our numbers grown, but the curriculum did too.

After the first one I assumed that going again would just be brushing up on my skills and making sure I was still doing everything right if I was cleaning a headstone, stumbled across remains on a cemetery visit, or attempted to transcribe a marker. But this time I learned so much from so many different presenters that my head was spinning for days. Additionally, all of my cemetery visits in the last year had really paid off. I not only understood more, but I knew where most of the photographic examples of different graves came from because I’d been there to see them myself. That was a nice feeling.

The Florida Public Archaeology Network creates this workshop and many of the presenters come on their days off to take part. This is a very committed group of people, and it seems that the people taking the workshop have the same level of commitment to their cemeteries. Some were cemetery owners, some were caretakers for church cemeteries. There were genealogists there, and members of various historical societies throughout Florida. And of course there were lots of scholars and preservationists, so it was in incredible mix of people and I learned a lot just from talking to others. Our name badges had our affiliation on them so it was easy to tell who belonged to what group. I didn’t have the blog name on my badge, in fact I only mentioned it once when I exchanged cards with someone.

This year was also different because I now have an emotional investment in Page Jackson Cemetery and all of the ensuing drama taking place around that 11 acre plot of land. Everything that I learned I was mentally applying to that cemetery, and as a result my volunteer buddies and I met up afterward and came up with a workable game plan for the next 4-6 months. It thankfully doesn’t include land clearing, weed whackers, or chain saws. While those things are important, we have come to realize that there’s really only so much that can be done and it’s the people there that matter most, so that will be our focus. (We were fortunate enough to meet at The Stranded Sailor pub in Sanford- if you’ve never been it should definitely be on your list!)

The conference took place on the gorgeous Flagler College campus and our cemetery day was spent in two of the town’s precious and well-cared for cemeteries. The Huguenot Cemetery was established in 1821 for Yellow Fever victims, and the Tolomato Cemetery, which has the oldest marked grave in Florida from 1797. The highlight of the morning for me was being able to go into the cemetery chapel there, which I’ve always wanted to see. Like every mortuary chapel I’ve been in this one definitely had that same feeling of dead space that I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, and it smelled like salt water and old plaster and had gently peeling walls. Of course I absolutely loved it.

Afterward we took a trolley ride past multiple burial spaces in the city, which was fascinating. Plus we completely filled the trolley! I had imagined a trolley draped in black like Lincoln’s funeral train, but we had a shiny bright model in green and an amazingly skilled driver who could navigate the tiny streets downtown like a champ.

At the end of the conference we signed our names to an interest sheet to start a Florida chapter for the Association for Gravestone Studies or AGS. I am very excited about this, and hope to get to their conference next year.

If you’ve never been to this conference and love cemeteries please try to get to the next one or to one of their smaller workshops during the year. You can follow them on Facebook to get information about upcoming events.

Also- if you love reading about things like this- you might like this blog. A bit of death, a bit of glamour…it’s a gloomy girl’s best friend!

Upsala Swedish Cemetery in Sanford, Florida

I’m going to start by saying this land is for sale, which is the one thing guaranteed to make me freak out when it comes to historic cemeteries. It’s not cheap either; the listing price is $225,000 and they say it could potentially hold a 6000 square foot church facility. I’m not so sure about this though. The site is small, and used to be the location for one of the Swedish churches in the area (there is another one just down the road that you can see) but of course it burned down to the ground as these beautiful old buildings are wont to do. The Swedish came here to work on the citrus groves as part of Henry Sanford’s enterprising vision. The church on this site was called the Scandinavian Society Lutheran Church. There was also a meeting house and a small cemetery for what is considered the largest Swedish community in Florida at that time.

Churches in the late 1800’s were built for small communities and the churches were small too, not like the behemoths built for today’s modern congregations. Modern churches seem to need a gigantic place for kids, a teen center, a cafe, and a place for meetings like AA, Al Anon, and, Financial Peace University. I’ll be honest and say that I’m never comfortable going to these gigantic complexes because I feel like I’m headed to a rock concert rather than…church. With that said, this is not a property that could house that kind of facility plus parking. It has beautiful old oak trees and the property is deep but not wide. The cemetery is in the back, and it’s extremely overgrown. Find A Grave says there are 42 burials.

When I first heard about this cemetery I was told that when I got there that I should bend over and look under all of the bushes that I was able to get near. I thought this was really odd, but when I marched in that day in my boots I was determined to do it to see what my informant had been talking about. And she was right. The bushes had at one time been ornamental plantings on the graves- but now they were as tall as I am and huge. I bent over to look at the base of one, pushing a few branches out of the way, and I saw a couple of headstones. The shrubs had grown up around them and then overtaken them. After that I was creeping around bent double like I was having a hard day of cramps, trying to look into all of the shrubbery. There were more obscured headstones everywhere I looked.

This cemetery backs up to a subdivision and someone has made a well used path into the cemetery where they’ve created a sort of outdoor man-cave. There was a little trash, mostly cans and snack wrappers, and a few plastic chairs and a stone bench set up in a kind of circle. Somebody hangs out here a lot. I wonder if they might bring a rake sometime and get to work.

The cemetery also has an area that is full of thick ferns and there is lots of kudzu and vines in the trees. The property itself is magical and I sincerely wish that I could buy it and just restore the cemetery and call it a done deal. And believe me, there was a part of me that reasoned that I don’t have a mortgage payment and why not just buy it, but I know better.

So I’ve decided I’m going to ask Santa for it this year instead.

There is a lot of information about this community online and also a few nice historical markers in the area, so it’s worth a visit. You can’t miss the gigantic for sale sign at the front of the property, just park and then walk straight back. I’d advise boots though and be cautious about bees if you’re going to paw through bushes looking for headstones.

On June 1st I’ll be in St. Augustine for the CRPT conference on cemetery preservation and I am SO excited! The one I went to 2 years ago is what prompted me to start this blog so I hope after this one I’ll be motivated to start a podcast (thanks @collegeparkmom!), buy my own cemetery, write a book, or something else industrious. If you’re local and you want to go I believe there is still space left and it’s a 2 day conference for 60 bucks. You can’t beat it for everything that you’ll learn.

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!

Page-Jackson Cemetery and Deep Woods OFF

This is a cemetery that I would like to draw your attention to for several reasons.

  1. It’s historic. Many Sanford pioneers are here and the plot for Zora Neale- Hurston’s family may possibly be here, though Zora herself is buried in Ft. Pierce.
  2. It needs help from the community in order to be restored and preserved; it’s in danger of being lost to the woods and the clean-up for this site is overwhelming.
  3. It is chock-full of burials and monuments…but you can’t see them unless you have a good can of bug-spray and sturdy shoes.
  4. Because of it’s delicate condition and value as a historical resource, this cemetery has really stolen my heart.
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Shiloh Cemetery entrance.

I found this cemetery when researching the Evergreen Municipal Cemetery, which is made up of five different cemeteries that have bled together throughout the years, forming an enormous arterial network of graves and monuments. Four of the cemeteries include Shiloh (maintained by a church), Restlawn and Lakeview (maintained by the city of Sanford), and the odd child… Page Jackson (not maintained by any one except volunteers). I haven’t been to the fifth one yet but it’s in there somewhere.

The ground there is spongy from burials and sunken graves are everywhere, some of them up to a couple of feet deep. Some of the ground has been cleared by a group of volunteers, revealing old headstones, some handmade, and a ground littered with funeral home markers. Most are rusted but in good condition to read since they were filled out by hand in the days before the typed paper ones. These are on thin sheets of metal from Eichelberger Funeral Home in Sanford, most from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Here is what I love about the markers- most are written in the same handwriting. One person had a very long career in funeral service. The funeral home is still servicing the community under the name Wilson-Eichelberger Mortuary.

Past the cleared area you start to notice headstones in the woods and you charge in out of curiosity (if you’re like me) or sit on the dirt road and squint into the woods in fear (if you happen to be cemetery phobic). Thankfully both of the people I went with aren’t scared of anything.

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In a family plot.

The woods are separated by the dirt road, and in another section of woods I started finding entire family plots, some with concrete barriers to mark the space, some with rusting chain still looped between poles. I’ve never seen another cemetery like it. I stayed on that side for awhile noticing that there seemed to be quite a few veterans graves, and there were also crime line notices posted all over the place. People were being encouraged to call if they noticed any suspicious activity – besides me and my friends walking through the woods in astonished silence. At one point the woods thinned and then ended abruptly in front of a huge trash pile and a large, flat field full of other graves, mostly with ledger stones rather than headstones. This was Shiloh Cemetery.

After being in the shady woods coming out into the bright field seemed surreal. The original cemetery gates were gone if they ever even existed, but the brick entrance was there and you could just make out the word ‘cemetery’ in faded white paint. The graves were painted bright colors or just left in plain concrete, and one had a man’s name spray painted onto the surface to serve as his marker. There were no dates, and on my second visit there were new burials sporting flowers with bright blue ribbons resting on top of the sandy soil.

Page Jackson is an African-American cemetery and is Sanford’s first black cemetery. Many of the graves are unmarked and in my reading I read that William Page-Jackson was a gravedigger at the cemetery and allowed people to bury their dead for free for many years. Eventually the place was called after him, because he was the resident authority over the space. He did what he wanted. In another account, I read that he was a farmer that had land that adjoined the cemetery, and it was named after him for that reason. I don’t know which account is true but I suspect it’s the second one.

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Handmade stones for Sarah King.

Meanwhile, this cemetery feels like it’s waiting to be found, like it has more stories to tell. People are looking for their family members and I know that one day when the space is finally cleared, there will likely be many more surprises awaiting volunteers and families. One surprise that I got while visiting was to find a team of paranormal investigators on the property with all of their equipment. The group leader described the cemetery as “friendly”. I loved that.

Currently 6 acres of the cemetery are not owned by the city, but the rest of Evergreen is. That means no maintenance from the city. It seems impossible in this day and age that these places can come to this kind of end, but it is surprisingly easy when you’re not really sure who owns the land or who has the right to work on it.

This cemetery has a history of vandalism and because of that police patrol the area on a regular basis, including at night. There is also a house on the property that is inhabited. (“My dream house!” I gleefully told Shawn. He laughed, but I could smell the fear.) If you visit this cemetery please walk carefully, don’t go in tick season, and put back anything you touch. Also, report any vandalism to the police, though it’s doubtful you will see anything with all of the activity in the area.

I picked a funeral home marker up off the ground that was handwritten and 58 years old, still perfectly legible. I put it back knowing that that was the only thing left to tell where Mr. Frank June was, and in a few years, no one will know anyway unless something is done for this place. The next time I visit I’m planning to just bring trash bags and fill them up. Every little bit helps and I don’t own a weed whacker or a chainsaw. And did you know that if you buy the dry version of Deep Woods OFF it will actually roll off of your skin in a powdery mess if you happen to accidentally touch any part of yourself after it’s applied? I didn’t either.

For more information about the cemetery and previous efforts at clean-up and restoration, you can visit this article from 2008.

Thanks to Keila and Shawn for the great photos!