Grave preservation Company gives old cemetery to community
Published: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 11:51 p.m.
EARLETON - A graveside ceremony near here Wednesday produced not tears and sorrow, but the joy of knowing a historic cemetery at long last is about to be brought back to life.
A cemetery established in the 1870s by an Episcopal church was overgrown and all but forgotten in recent years as the land on which it reposes changed ownership, mainly among timber companies.
Then in early 2003, J.C. Mayhair of Melrose launched a campaign to reclaim the old graveyard from the pine trees, palmettos and neglect that had overtaken it. Nearly two years later, the persistence of Mayhair, the Alachua County Historical Commission and Historic Melrose Inc. led to Wednesday's ceremony in which the landowner, Rayonier, deeded the 2.75-acre cemetery to its preservers.
"This is a very important historical treasure," Mark Barrow, president of Historic Melrose Inc., said during the ceremony, a few yards from the only grave that still contains a marker.
Among about 20 people attending were representatives of Rayonier, the timber and paper products company that acquired the property in 1999.
"We're happy this day came about," Rayonier spokesman Mike Bell said.
He said his company wasn't aware of the cemetery until shortly after it bought the land. Rayonier manages about 2 million acres of forestland, most of it in the Southeast, he said, and some tracts often contain old cemeteries.
"We believe that with large ownership comes responsibility, including protecting cultural and environmental sites on our land base," Bell said. "There's an awful lot of history told through our cemeteries."
The cemetery is believed to contain 60 to 70 graves, Barrow said, a handful of them containing the remains of veterans of the Confederacy. For much of its life, he said, the property belonged to the St. Augustine-based Episcopal Diocese of Florida.
Across the road from the cemetery, a few hundred yards from Lake Santa Fe, once stood St. Joseph's Episcopal Church, believed to be the mother church of the diocese. The church building and congregation are long gone, but the cemetery sometimes still is referred to as St. Joseph's Cemetery. It's also called simply the Earleton Cemetery, although it isn't known if it ever was a community cemetery.
Mayhair said he used to visit the site in the 1970s, when it was maintained by a Boy Scout troop from Trinity Episcopal Church in Melrose, and the current stand of pines hadn't taken root.
"There were grave markers all through there," Mayhair said, motioning to the dense thicket. He said he heard that years later someone went through the cemetery gathering up all the grave markers. He was told they were taken to a shed a couple of miles away and lost when the shed was destroyed.
The lone remaining headstone identifies the grave of Emma Lucy Hilton, who was born in England in 1827 and died April 16, 1884.
"She was asking us to help her," said Jo Harben, a member of the Alachua County Historical Commission, an advisory group for the County Commission. "And now we have."
After Mayhair's initial research and efforts to save the cemetery, Harben wrote a letter to Rayonier asking the company to consider giving up the property. It took about 18 months of working out the details - including a survey conducted by the Alachua County Public Works Department and an appraisal Harben's husband did for free - but it all was worth it to arrive at Wednesday's ceremony, she said.
"We're so grateful," Harben said. "These kinds of things often don't come about. You spin your wheels and then nothing ever happens. This time it worked."
The next step, Barrow said, is to arrange to have the pine trees removed. Money from the sale of the timber will help pay for additional cleanup, he said.
"Then we're going to approach the Episcopal Diocese in St. Augustine to see if it will take over ownership," he said. "That was where their mother church was and a lot of Episcopalians are buried there."
If that fails, Barrow said, an Earleton Cemetery Association probably will be set up to maintain the property. In the meantime, he said, they are asking for the public's help in piecing together the story of the newly revived cemetery.
"Anyone who knows anything about this cemetery, or knows of anyone who is buried there, I'd like them to contact me," Barrow said. He can be reached at 475-5359.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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