Tombstone hunters are helping to preserve local history

Taylor Griffith, 12, photographs a once-hidden gravestone in the woods of St. Joseph Cemetery in Archer on Saturday. Her grandfather, Jim Powell, Jr., and other volunteers are photographing all graves in Alachua County to preserve the record online.

Sarah Kiewel/Correspondent
Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 3:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 3:53 p.m.

On many Saturdays, a band of people, from grannies to youngsters, root around Alachua County cemeteries. It’s not some “Twilight” saga-inspired mission or a gothic-themed scavenger hunt.

Instead, they do it to preserve history and to make that history easier to access on the Internet.

Armed with cameras — in addition to equipment for cutting through brush — they are taking photos of every headstone and marker they can find and putting them online.

“Our aim is to photograph every grave marker in Alachua County. In 10 years, they will be 10 years older, and no telling what will have happened to them,” said Jim Powell, who leads to effort. “There is a lot of history being lost. We just thought that if we take a snapshot of it now, in the future we will have that history.”

Powell works with historical records for the Alachua County Clerk of the Court Office, which is the official record-keeper for the county.

Clerk Buddy Irby has long been keen on preserving records and making them publicly available, earning him high marks from individuals and organizations that use the records for a variety of needs — from legal action to tracing family ancestry.

While Powell hunts up graves on his own time, Irby said the photographs will be a valuable asset to the historical record of the county.

“All of this is important, especially to people researching their family genealogy and building the history of Alachua County,” Irby said. “It’s a great project. We get so many inquiries from throughout the nation about records we may have here.”

The number of graves in the county is not known, and probably will never be known. Newnansville Cemetery on County Road 235 near Alachua may be the oldest, Powell said, while Evergreen Cemetery off Southeast 22nd Avenue is one of the largest — at least 20,000 markers have been photographed there.

But far more difficult to locate and photograph are the many small, rural graveyards throughout the county.

Some are so overgrown that finding the cemetery itself takes perseverance, and then even more dedication to find the graves within the cemetery.

Others are just small family plots that have been lost over time. Still others were part of settlements — often African-American — that are now little more than a memory to old-timers. Some have only depressions in the ground indicating graves that no longer have markers — if they ever did.

Ironically, Powell and his volunteers are using the newest technology to find the oldest cemeteries.

“One of the early ones we did, we found by using an old map and transferring it through a computer to GPS,” Powell said. “It was the Trapp family — only about five or six stones. It was a black family, and one of them was in the International Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization, and also the Knights of Pythias. It is history that was here — you realize that there was a big enough fraternal organization in that area that was black. What are we missing in our history?”

Powell is accompanied on his Saturday outings by volunteers — often his granddaughters and members of the Alachua County Historical Commission and Daughters of the American Revolution.

It turns out the girls have a bit of a competitive streak when it comes to photographing headstones. Both say they can photograph them better than their granddad.

They said they also enjoy the community service aspect of the work.

“It makes me feel like I’m making a difference — helping people find their family,” Taylor Griffith, 12, said on a break from photographing graves at the St. Joseph’s Church cemetery near Archer. “The oldest I’ve seen was someone who died in 1795, or something like that. (The person) was 2 years old.”

Another frequent volunteer is Florence Van Arnam, 83. She is the fifth generation of her family to live in Alachua County and is a member of the DAR and the historical commission.

Van Arnam said that putting photos of grave sites online is valuable not only to genealogists but also to elderly or homebound people who want to see the markers to remember a loved one.

“I think it’s good to save the past. So many of the stones we’ve seen are illegible. They’ll be gone soon,” she said. The primary website for the photos is

The photos will eventually be archived with the University of Florida, as in this initial example .

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