Neglected Clues to the Past
(from the October Issue of the Johnson County Historical Society Journal)


 
 

The grave of Preston M. Bush [born 3 Oct 1831, died 5 May 1847] is located in the center of the north (old) Hagarville Cemetery. Surrounding the scattered remains of an aboveground grave structure of native stone is what was once an extensive cemetery. Bush's carefully inscribed headstone has been broken twice; one break is obviously old, the other occurred when the cemetery was recently cleared with a bulldozer. A footstone, also with an inscription, is lying beside the grave.
 

The Bush grave is the oldest known burial in the several established cemeteries in Hagarville. The old cemetery, located just north of Arkansas Hwy 123, fell into disuse in the later part of the 19th century. Occasional burials continued into the 20th Century, the latest known burial occurring in 1912. After 1935, the north section became even more isolated when the road was changed from near the base of the Hagarville "Mountain" to its current location. As close family members moved away or died, the cemetery was left without caretakers. Periodically, a few interest persons would clear the old burying ground of overgrowth, but eventually the entire area became hidden beneath trees, dense underbrush, and honeysuckle.
 

After the formation of the Hagarville Cemetery Association, various persons worked sporadically on clearing the old cemetery but there was little permanent improvement because there was no concerted effort. As the need for additional burial plots increased, it was decided that a bulldozer would be the best way to clear the undeveloped acreage and neglected area. It was certainly effective.
 

Now it is quite easy to walk over the area and observe the destruction of markers and speculate about other options. Without a doubt, heavy equipment was the fastest and most efficient way to remove almost 100 years of neglect, but was it the best choice? It is true that some tombstones had fallen and had been broken or displaced during abandonment, but by removing native stone markers, along with the top layer of soil, the probability of identifying each grave became practically impossible.

Commercial grave markers, broken and damaged, were left as a mute testimony to lack of respect to the deceased. Many native fieldstone markers were removed with the debris and discarded. Who will ever know the names of those buried in the old cemetery at Hagarville? Who will ever know how many were buried there or the customs of burials? There is evidence of twenty-eight remaining graves, but an estimated fifty to sixty are lost forever. This damage is due, not to vandalism, but to the well intentioned, but ill-advised, efforts to clear the overgrown area of the original cemetery.

Who is at fault?

The historians, the family researchers, cultural geographers, and community members must share the blame with those who did not realize the importance of preservation of the landscape. We are at fault for thinking that the task would wait our convenience. Every day that we postpone reclaiming an old landmark or an old abandoned cemetery may mean that we will be too late. Anything that could be learned from the remains of the past is destroyed when gravesites are bulldozed to make way for new construction and when burial sites are not clearly marked. If we do not make efforts to preserve the boundaries and landscape of the frontier cemeteries, ethnic and cultural clues to how former generations lived, died, and were buried will disappear.

If after thoughtful consideration, it becomes necessary that cemeteries be altered to facilitate maintenance or because of essential construction projects, information should be carefully recorded before changes are made. Sketches and photographs should be made of the locations of graves, of the styles of burial, and of all grave inscriptions. This information should be as detailed as possible and be placed in a library or public archives, available to families and researchers. Damaged gravemarkers must be restored or repaired. Old gravesites may be the only surviving records of a family or a long forgotten community. We must protect these fragments of our cultural heritage.

What can you do?

Join with others in forming associations to preserve and maintain historic family and community cemeteries. We must become active in existing cemetery associations and share concerns with association officials. It is the responsibility of each historian and community member to safeguard neglected burial sites and to salvage these clues to the folkways and customs of former generations.

 

Editorial

The Preston Bush grave may be the second oldest marked grave in the entire county. Nothing has been found, to date, definitely placing him within a family unit. If there was a family plot surrounding his burial place, evidence was destroyed when a tree was uprooted beside Preston's grave, further displacing the grave structure. Much that could be learned from the intact, but badly overgrown burial ground was destroyed by heavy equipment. This frontier cemetery entered the Twentieth Century with a jolt. It now lies naked and unprotected, its stones tumbled and graves disturbed. Without immediate care and restoration the remaining markers will continue to deteriorate and the gravesites will again become overgrown with honeysuckle and blackberry vines.

This graveyard is believed by some to be the original location of the first cemetery in Hagarville but has not been used for burials in more than eighty years. There are few official records for the early years of settlement in Johnson County, and documentation of the lives of early residents is extremely difficult. Frontier cemeteries are one of the tools that cultural geographers use to date community settlement and disentangle family groups. The patterns and styles of burial, the plants that were selected for cemetery areas can point a researcher to a particular state or cultural origin. When these cemeteries are preserved they can serve as valuable research tools for that time period when there is little to help in the search for communities and families pasts. As these disappear, so will all the clues that could be found in them.

There are many small family and community cemeteries that have succumbed to the same fate in recent years, victims of housing developments, road construction, and lack of concern. The greatest fault lies with those who know that those cemeteries are there, waiting for some more convenient day. As with the old North cemetery at Hagarville, that convenient time may be too late for historians and researchers. Essential clues to settlement and cultural development will be destroyed along with what may be the only remaining evidence of the life and death of early residents if efforts are not made to preserve the remaining frontier cemeteries.

Descendants of those buried in the old North Hagarville Cemetery and local historians should join efforts with the Hagarville Cemetery Association in repairing and restoring the remaining gravemarkers. Funds are needed for these efforts, in addition to active participation in the Cemetery Association. Mrs. Louise Graves, HC 63, Box 222, Hagarville, AR, 72839, serves as secretary-treasurer of the organization headed by Jack Freeman of Rt. 2, Clarksville, AR, 72830. Contributions for this purpose should be designated FOR REPAIR AND RESTORATION OF GRAVEMARKERS. All persons with family members buried at Hagarville are encouraged to contribute to the general maintenance fund and to become active in the Association.

The annual business meeting is held each year on the last Tuesday evening in April, at the Hagarville Community Building, at 7:00 p.m. A workday is always planned prior to Decoration Day, but according to a cemetery association officer, there are very few who attend and the work is left to the same few each year. Decoration is observed on the first Sunday of May. Friends and family meet at the cemetery to decorate the graves of loved ones and commemorate their lives with a memorial program at 2:00 p.m. It is a time of reverence, a time to express love and appreciation for the deceased.

Now is the time for all persons with ties to the Hagarville Cemeteries to become involved, to show their interest in the continued care and maintenance of each gravesite and commit to preserving the past for the future. ________Debra C. Blackard

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