Have you ever wondered if there were other people who love cemeteries as much as you do? Have you ever wished that you could meet a bunch of them all at once and feel like you belonged?
Well, that wish can come true, my friend. Two weeks ago I went to the first meeting of the Florida Chapter for AGS. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I was at the last CRPT conference when a short meeting was held to see if there was any interest in starting a Florida chapter. Every person at the conference was interested. We all signed our names and info on a sheet to express our desire to start the chapter, and within a few months, it was done. Shelby Bender is our chapter president and not only did I recognize her at the meeting, but there were other people there from previous CRPT events. Because of that I felt comfortable right away an less like my shy, reclusive self.
When I got to the Alachua County Library in Gainesville I was about 30 minutes early. It was a chilly, overcast day and I walked two blocks to Starbucks to get something warm to sip on during the meeting. By the time I got to the meeting room there was a small queue of people waiting to sign in.
The library looks dull and beige-ly boring from the outside but the interior is gorgeous, with huge wooden beams overhead and a cool green color on the walls. It was a very soothing, grounding space and I thought regretfully of the 10 years that I spent in the Orlando Public Library, which always looked and felt like a prison to me. I know some people love Brutalist architecture and I think that’s great, so you go right ahead. The world needs all kinds of people.
There was a woman standing behind me in line as I waited to sign in and I turned to her and said, “This library is beautiful.” I was in awe of the meeting room, which had stained glass panels at the top of the room with a pattern that made me think of an eclipse. She smiled and agreed…and we’ve been talking ever since. I had met author and speaker Chris Kullstroem from Tampa, and I was in for an entertaining afternoon.
I was also thrilled to look up and see Keila and her fiancee walking in. I knew they were going to be attending the cemetery ramble afterward, but did not know they would be present at the meeting. We had to keep our chatter to a minimum during the presentation but I’ll admit that I did pass a few notes. After the meeting and business at hand we met in Evergreen Municipal Cemetery for a walk and guided tour.
The cemetery covers 53 acres and was established in 1856 with the burial of a baby girl, Elizabeth Thomas, and then her mother 8 months later. She had given birth at 40, and I can only imagine what she went through in 1856. I actually did not know this at the time of our tour or I would have listened a little more carefully, but their marker is pictured below, carved by W.T. White. First burials are always a curiosity to me, since that seems to be what starts a cemetery most of the time, rather than land deeded or given specifically for that purpose. When the land was sold one acre remained a graveyard until the city purchased it in 1944, though there was a cemetery association in the 1890’s that managed the site. It now holds more than 10,000 people on it’s 53 acres, but Find A Grave lists a number in the nine thousands. The cemetery has a nickname, “The Wondrous Place”.
There are many notable burials here and our guide walked us through while telling story after story, but apparently one of our number was particularly offended by the fact that he left out a grave that she wanted to see, and she was pretty vocal about it. It was the grave of Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade. He had an unassuming grave near the roadway, and the guide pointed it out to her (it was so close we could read his name) but she continued complaining and at that point, I became offended as well. My cemetery zen only goes so far, apparently. It was the only thing about the day that irritated me.
We also learned that there was a notable stone mason who made several of the stones in the cemetery, W.T. White from Charleston, South Carolina. Headstones were delivered by bringing them along the coast and then up the St. John’s River to Palatka for delivery. I recalled hearing a similar story in St. Augustine in the Huguenot Cemetery about the headstones being made in Charleston and thought it was fascinating. White’s headstones can also be found in Tolomato Cemetery in St. Augustine. (See below.)
I also was very drawn to a headstone that said Our Mary, with a small, ghostly female image carved out of the stone. It had it’s hands held as if in prayer and a pale, pleading face tilted upward. It was simple and almost folksy in it’s style. I loved it.
I’d like to go back to this cemetery with just a couple of people so I could wander on my own and also check out all of the bells and whistles that they have- including an extensive audio tour with 38 places where you can listen to a recording about the person buried there. There is a tour brochure that you can download here.
All in all it was a great day with friends, and if you’re interested in joining your local chapter of the AGS or starting your own chapter please visit their website for more information. I’ll be cemetery hopping with Keila this spring, and reviewing one of Chris’s books on here soon, so there are adventures to look forward to. Also, is anyone going to head to that abandoned funeral home in Jacksonville with me or not? If you’ve been, please tell me. If you’ve been and were arrested for trespassing, please don’t comment. I don’t want to be anxious about going.