KILLEEN, Texas (AP) — Any farmer would have found it strange to see Tom Heard and his bookish group of county historians tapping the stalks of their cornfields on a sunny afternoon with their armory of rakes, shovels and weed trimmers.
Over the past three years, the Bell County cemetery committee has been working the pastures, farms and urban areas of Bell County with the formidable task of identifying and salvaging cemeteries.
The committee has finished a comprehensive map of the county's cemeteries, which members say could never be fully completed.
"You are never really done identifying cemeteries," said Dorothy Button, chairwoman of the Bell County Historical Commission.
"We traced through many fields and cattle pastures to find these cemeteries. They are cropping up everywhere."
In the late 1980s, the state delegated the responsibility of maintaining public cemeteries to the counties. A trust fund, composed of volunteer donations, was set up by the Bell County Commissioners Court to pay for the work, but no one knew at the time how many cemeteries there were and where they were located.
Many have been sitting unattended on forlorn pastures since the 1850s, said Button.
In 2009, Heard, chairman of the cemetery committee, suggested the group find all of the cemeteries in the county, and a map, he determined, was the only way to organize the information.
The crew started with a preliminary map developed in 1999 — which included about 110 cemeteries — and started adding to it, mostly through reading historical books and word of mouth.
One person even called in while digging up the base for a swimming pool.
Each month the committee members met and pooled their information before visiting the physical sites.
"We'd read something like, 'Grandpa was buried on the farm,'" said Heard. "And so we'd go to where the farm was and find out if the grave was there or not."
It was hard work clearing the sites, and much of it was done, in what Button calls, "snake country."
At one point the group even enlisted 20 students from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor to help.
Once a cemetery was found, the group had to investigate its legal guardianship.
The law says, if a cemetery had only one family buried in it, it was considered a family cemetery, said Joe Button. If more than one family was buried there, the cemetery was considered public.
After three years, the historical group added 66 more cemeteries to the map and 88 — of the total 177 — were eligible for the trust fund.
Many were single graves, which the committee named after the person buried, as is the case with Jodie Moore Cemetery or the Sara Herndon Grave. Others had too many names, such as the Fort Griffin Cemetery, also known as Little River Cemetery or Hartrick Bluff Cemetery.
"We took what was most popular; otherwise we wouldn't have enough room to put the names on the map," said Heard.
Soon the work became less about finding headstones and more about telling a story.
Heard said the oldest grave they found was from 1837.
"We know there were people who lived here before that time but we don't know where they were buried," said Joe Button.
For Heard, the cemetery map tells the story of the struggle for territory between Native American tribes and settlers.
"The Indians would come in and take the area and then the settlers would take it back, and then the Indians would take it back again," he said.
An added benefit of the project was creating a new tool for genealogy research.
"We have parents and grandparents who don't even know their grandparents. And that's sad," said Heard. "Today we have so many better researching tools."
The Historical Commission has published the map in color and distributed it throughout the county.
Heard said they even placed one in the county deed office so people purchasing property would know if there is a cemetery on the land.
The maps are on sale at the Bell County Museum in Belton.