Back To the Past: The Abandoned Cemetery, Part Two

Sandy Trzaska and Vivian Owens try to imagine the cemetery confines now lost to forest clutter

A continuing series looking into forgotten cemetery beyond the border of Mount Dora’s history.

Soon after my Jan. 17 piece about the overgrown, abandoned cemetery next to the Mount Dora Country Club published, fragments of its story began trickling in. (See “A Park for Mount Dora’s Lost History”)

Sandy Trzaska, a Country Club resident who lives next to the cemetery, e-mailed me, saying she often goes in there. “It is quiet and peaceful, and I ask myself over and over, ‘why can we not find someone to help clean this up for the poor souls that live there?’  I think they deserve better.”

Commenting about the only cement burial marker I had earlier found, she wrote, “I did not know Anna (Chapman) who is buried close to the mail boxes, but I make sure every holiday she has something on her grave.”

I also found out that makeshift marker for “Claire” dated 2012 with the colorful bouquet of plastic flowers was actually for the cat of a Country Club resident who had been killed by a gator who’d come up out of the lake next to one of the golf course fairways.

When the cemetery was marked off by the Country Club developer in the 1990s, it was in much better shape. I queried Vivian Owens, a local expert on Mount Dora’s black history, and she wrote back, “I visited that site soon after it had been discovered.  At that time, it was very nicely cleaned out, and there were markers on several grave sites.  I did not enter any data in my book about this cemetery, because I was looking for very old graves, dating back to the 1800s.  Families living in Wolf Branch were buried there, I believe.”

It’s also a lot bigger than I originally thought—13 acres, according to the Morrison Home survey. A lot of graves could be in there.

Bob Jackson, an early director for the Country Club homeowner’s association, wrote me that there was a desire to “fix it up” back in the 1990s, but back then the developer had majority control of the board and voted the idea down. According to the Planned Unit Development (PUD) document signed with the city, the Country Club must provide access to the cemetery but is not responsible for upkeep. And, the city doesn’t own the cemetery. (Then who does?)

Jackson told me about Don Braxton, a “cemetery buff” who knows a lot about the area’s graveyards, and had visited the cemetery in the late 1990s.  He had pointed out that depressions at one end could possibly be grave-sites for slaves dating back to before the Civil War. Jackson wasn’t sure whether Braxton was still alive, but he said that VFW posts in the area might know how to reach him (Braxton specialized in researching military graves). I’d seen a few Orlando Sentinel clippings about Braxton’s work in other area cemeteries in the file on the graveyard in the Country Club HOA office, but online searches for those were unfruitful as of this writing.

Another hint came from a later e-mail from Sandy Trzaska when she wrote to tell me about a woman who used to come to the cemetery to her respects.

“Years ago, I met a very nice woman all dressed up in her Sunday best and she asked, ‘Can I go in the cemetery and visit my father’s grave?’  She was very elderly.  I said, ‘Yes and I will go with you.’  She went straight to his grave even with all of the trees and underbrush down.  She told me how they used to carry in the wood caskets on the shoulders of their family members from 441 to this cemetery.  She stated that there were many people buried in there as this was the first African-American cemetery for Mount Dora.  Now, she stated, they bury on Britt Road in that cemetery.”

She said, “Most of the families are all gone now and I am sure she is probably gone also.  But what a sweet woman. She  would come out here all dressed up and put flowers on her father’s grave.  I used to continue putting flowers there for her, but, now more trees have fallen and now I cannot find her father.”

Edgewood Cemetery
Edgewood Cemetery

The Britt Road cemetery she mentions is Edgewood—it’s about a mile away—and it is fairly large, more than a hundred legible markers with a number more crypts that have damaged markers, or none at all. This cemetery could indeed be an earlier one that was eventually abandoned for the more accessible Edgewood cemetery.

Online research indicates that two smaller black cemeteries are located a shorter distance from Edgewood, in wooded areas a half mile apart, sized one acre and five acres, respectively. A 2010 Orlando Sentinel article found online described the work of a Fort Pierce woman who was doing genealogical research when she found death certificates for several family members buried there.  She had wanted to clear the sites and run a road out to the them, which she named Island Pond 1 and Island Pond 2 (after a farming community located near there in the early 20th century.) (Story here.) Anyone know if that work was accomplished?

The beginnings of formal research into this graveyard is just beginning. Connections are old, perhaps forgotten, possibly lost. A large number of Florida’s abandoned graveyards are for African-American residents not allowed access to white cemeteries and whose history is less accounted for in the official record.

With these new pieces raising more questions about the cemetery than they answered, I met there with Vivian Owens, Sandy Trzaska, Bob Jackson and Cal Rolfson, the second district council representative who also lives in the Country Club and who first told me about the cemetery. We came to take another look and ask ourselves what might be done to repair this forsaken place into our recorded history.

Bob Jackson and Cal Rolfson at one entrance to the cemetery; Vivian Owens gets close to inspect one of the few visible markers
Bob Jackson and Cal Rolfson at one entrance to the cemetery; Vivian Owens gets close to inspect one of the few visible markers

Sandy showed a different way into the cemetery, behind a neighbor’s house, stepping over brush to get to stones I couldn’t access from where I had started before. (The overgrowth is considerable, with saw palmettos taller than all of us growing densely together and many fallen trees and other forest litter.) The first stone was a military marker for Elmo Mills, died January 1943, who, according to what Bob had earlier heard, had died in the Battle of the Bulge. But, checking online, I saw that the battle was fought between December 1944 and January 1945. I couldn’t even find record of Mills’ death in online military records. It’s a military marker, but Elmo Mills’ true story is tangled deep in the underbrush.

Sandy told us that many more of the stones were up toward the north end where, unfortunately, the brush was thickest and impassible. If Braxton was correct that the slave burials were at the south end, it’s conceivable that the dead were laid in south to north. (According to Braxton, it was the custom of slave burials to inter the dead lying east-west. Online research confirms this; a page on African-American cemeteries confirmed this, adding a detail eerily familiar to this graveyard:

“Many accounts from the mid- and late-nineteenth century reveal that African-Americans were uniformly buried east-west, with the head to the west. One freed slave explained that the dead should not have to turn around when Gabriel blows his trumpet in the eastern sunrise. Others have suggested they were buried facing Africa.

Even where the slaves were buried seems similar. All seem to represent marginal property – land which the planter wasn’t likely to use for other purposes. The burial spots have been described as ‘ragged patches of live-oak and palmetto and brier tangle which throughout the Islands are a sign of graves within, – graves scattered without symmetry, and often without headstones or head-boards, or sticks ….’ A more recent researcher, Elsie Clews Parsons, observes that the African-American cemeteries were ‘hidden away in remote spots among trees and underbrush. In the middle of some fields are islands of large trees the owners preferred not to make arable, because of the exhaustive work of clearing it. Old graves are now in among these trees and surrounding underbrush.’” (sciway.net)

Finding out the truths of this graveyard through community effort was easily proved to us as we got talking about the Anna Chapman stone, the only one visible from accessible paths. When I asked Jenna Theierl (administrative supervisor with the city’s planning department who works with the historic preservation committee that provided signage posted at the graveyard’s entrances) if the city had any records on the cemetery, she told me no, but did a quick search of the city census and found record of Anna and Will Chapman living in East Town on Orange Street in 1930.

Copy of 1930 Mount Dora Census
Copy of 1930 Mount Dora Census

Vivian smiled and then told us that she knew of the Chapmans because they were living on the land her family built their house on, and they had been given space on that property to live. Sandy then told us that Will Chapman’s marker was next to Anna’s, now out of sight.

That’s how the community can help solve the riddles of this abandoned graveyard—by pooling all that we know. And it’s only by pooling our work that this mess of Florida scrub will ever come to be pulled back to reveal the graveyard beneath.

Cal Rolfson has nourished an idea for some time for an Eagle Scout troop to help clean the area out, and it’s a good one. Nothing much can happen there without a dedicated sweep through to remove all the fallen trees, yard trash, thickets of saw palmetto and leaves. Given Florida’s climate, there’s a window left to start this spring and then finish in the fall. And given the size—13 acres—the job may take more than a year to finish.

Meanwhile, a good amount research can be done into what is already known about the graveyard, at the county historical level or with the state (Florida maintains a Master Site Index of all researched graveyards). History buffs in the area could provide much valuable information. Together, a picture may form.

Mt. Carmel-Simpson cemetery today
Mt. Carmel-Simpson cemetery today

At some point, however, the reclamation work will have to dig deeper. In 2010 the Mount Dora Historical Society took on the responsibility for doing just that at another cemetery, Mt. Carmel-Simpson, a deeply wooded area off old 441 next to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. It was a big community effort, with $20,000 raised to clean, identify and place new markers for some 57 graves.  A costly part of the job was hiring a surveying company to scan the ground for crypts. I’ve contacted Janet Westlake, current president of the Historical Society, and she’s digging into their files to get more background on how that project was pulled off.

But the question really is for the community to ask two questions: how important it is to reclaim this abandoned cemetery into its history, and then what it is willing to do.

Standing next to one of the tin markers still visible in the overgrowth—with its faint spidery inscription—John Scoggins, d. 1941—none of us could think of anything to say about this resident almost vanished from history. And we knew there were many, many more beneath our feet who had vanished completely, and would remain so while time moved on in earnest on the golf fairways at either end.

This is a story in motion, with updates periodically posted. If you have information about this cemetery or would like to help in the effort to help restore it, contact David care of the Mount Dora Citizen.

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David Cohea, Writer (david@mountdoracitizen.com)