It’s easy enough to find the starting point of the Watkinsville Cemetery: the grave of a young girl marked with a stone from 1811.
But tracing the evolution of the graveyard from there gets tricky, officials say. Burial plots shoot off east under large trees, south toward Simonton Bridge Road and west into the woods of a neighboring property.
Then there are the impossible-to-answer questions about the 6-acre tract with more than 900 graves. Who is buried beneath the stones where the writing has eroded away? And why aren’t there records of just who is buried where?
Even the line where the cemetery stops and Augusta Verner’s property begins is unclear, Watkinsville Mayor Jim Luken said.
“People bought plots of land in the cemetery, but we don’t know who they bought them from,” said Luken, noting that the city doesn’t even own the cemetery.
The Daughters of the American Revolution learned all that when some members began studying ways to get the old graveyard listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In order to register a graveyard, the land must be surveyed and have clear boundaries, said Oconee DAR Regent Dana Anderson. The National Register also requires a map of the burial plots, which no one seems to have, she said.
“It’s such an old cemetery that there’s a lot of oral history, but not a lot of recorded history,” Anderson said. “Without a map, it’s hard to know. There’s a lot more history to be found here.”
The cemetery originally belonged to a Methodist church built next to it, but the church burned down in the 1820s and never was rebuilt, DAR member Laurie Traill said. The city acquired it in 1837 and sold plots to families in the area, Traill said.
All the while, locals kept burying loved ones there, expanding the cemetery with no real plan until some of the graves crept onto Verner’s property, Luken said.
“The graves are disorganized,” he said. “It’s Mrs. Verner’s land, and people have been digging graves back there for a long time.”
In 1979, the city got rid of the cemetery; Officials said that the land was privately owned by everyone who had plots in it, though the city government agreed to clean it up periodically with donations, Luken said.
“That’s the agreement we go by today,” he said. “It’s a real unusual situation.”
Some funeral homes like Lord & Stephens still have services and dig graves there, but only if the grave site is part of a family plot, said Dale Rogers, a funeral director at the Lord & Stephens Danielsville Chapel.
Watkinsville officials still host cleanup days at the graveyard.
But tidying the graves is only part of restoring the cemetery, Luken said. Ultimately, officials will need to puzzle out the graveyard’s boundary lines.
“I think the answer is to get some groups to work together including an attorney or two to work out the property lines of the cemetery,” he said.
The DAR wants to be one of those groups that cleans up the cemetery and restores some of the graveyard, Traill said.
Many of the headstones have broken in half or cracked or are no longer legible. Trees and bushes have grown wild around and even through other monuments.
Many square feet of wavy ground have no markers at all, but just bits and pieces of stones. DAR volunteers have looked through old newspaper clippings and other records and discovered that 88 veterans from every major American conflict are buried in the graveyard, but not all of their graves are accounted for.
The DAR plans to do more research and ultimately find every grave on the grounds, Anderson said.
A complete survey of the cemetery will move the tract of Watkinsville history closer to the National Register.
“In finding the veterans, we found a lot of people who are interesting and important to this area,” Traill said. “The whole history of Watkinsville is in here.”
Watkinsville Cemetery full of history, but much of it hidden
Posted: Wednesday, November 25, 2009
By JOE VANHOOSE