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!