By happenchance, Sue Heath found her ancestors' burial plot at the overrun and overgrown Glenwood Cemetery in Forreston. One year later, she’s helping other Ellis County residents find their ancestors as well.
Now serving on the board of directors for the cemetery, Heath discovered that her great-great-grandparents, Wyatt and Sarah Harvey, were buried at Glenwood after she searched for the two on findagrave.com. However, when she visited the gravesites, she couldn’t even see their gravestones: the entire cemetery was overgrown with weeds and vines, and not a single person had been buried there since 1966.
Cemetery repairman, Dale Ellison, has been repairing cemeteries for more than 14 years. He said the vines were so thick that it blocked the sunlight from the inside. One human-sized gravestone even startled Ellison as he cut through the vines.
“This is the most dense as far as I’m concerned,” Ellison said. “Normally, I go to a cemetery, and I crash through there to figure where everything is at. Here, you couldn’t crash through anything. You couldn’t go through five or 10 feet.”
Heath, however, said she couldn’t abandon the cemetery. Not with her great-great-grandparents and 178 others listed burials at the site.
“I couldn’t walk away,” Heath said. “Because of them, I am here.”
Originally from Charlotte Court House, Virginia, Wyatt and Sarah Harvey had seven children and owned three plantations before moving to Ellis County. When they died, Sarah’s headstone was made in 1899, but it got lost mid-route to the cemetery.
From there, a sheriff from Bastrop County found the headstone and stored it away in a barn. Since death certificates weren't recorded until the 1910s, the tombstone remained there for 30 years until the county tore down the barn and built a county courthouse on top of it. It wouldn’t be until the 1980s when construction crews would rediscover the headstone while renovating the courthouse.
The mysterious headstone became front-page news for The Bastrop Advertiser, with Bastrop Historical Commission chair Clyde Reynolds safekeeping the tombstone personally. After he died in 2000, museum curators located the headstone in his farm and delivered it to Heath last year. She then placed it next to Wyatt’s headstone at the Glenwood Cemetery in Forreston.
“118 years after it was made,” she said. “It finally makes it here.”
Heath said even when they cleaned out most of the vines, there was still much more work to be done for the cemetery. For one thing, many of the gravestones were sinking into the ground.
“After we cleared it out, the ground has receded,” she said. “Some of the stones that were covered up, they’re now starting to come back up.”
Headstones were lopsided and uneven at the work site. Ellison said they were discovering new gravestones every month as they worked.
“It looks helter-skelter, but it’s not,” Heath said. “The headstones are exactly in rows. So we’re going to let nature take it back the way its supposed to be, and it’ll be a pretty little cemetery.”
Heath said she’s grateful for all of the people and stories she’s gotten to know while working on the cemetery.
“It’s really cool listening to their stories," she said. “One 94-year-old man was so excited because he thought he was gonna die before he’d ever get to see his daddy’s stone again."
Ellison said the average mortality rate for the men buried there is 62, while for most of the women the age is 45. Ellison said there are also 10 infants buried at the cemetery. One of the gravestones is labeled “Little Jack.”
“For the first time in 30 years, his headstone saw the sunshine,” she said. “He was a year old. But someone loved him enough to give him a headstone.”
Heath said the restoration process is still ongoing and the team is hoping to be done by the end of the year. To volunteer for the restoration, contact Heath at firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate materials and funds to Ellison’s non-profit, go to www.cemetery-repair.com.
David Dunn, @DavidDunnInTX