On a brisk but sunny March morning local historians Andrew Mackie and J.E. Brown packed up some necessary gear and headed out to do some work at the Isaac Williams Cemetery, an old family burial plot that has not been used for burials in more than 80 years.
Earlier this month, Mackie addressed the Yadkin County commissioners to request that March be designed as “Abandoned Cemetery Awareness” month. Since about 2000, Mackie has been involved in locating old cemeteries in the area. He estimates there may be as many as 600 in the county. Carl Hoots published a book in the mid-1980s detailing some of the old cemeteries. Mackie called Hoots a “pioneer” and said he was proud to continue his work.
Mackie noted that abandoned may not necessarily mean neglected. Some property owners have taken care to preserve the cemeteries found on their land. Mackie hopes that bringing more awareness to the historical importance of old graveyards will encourage other property owners to do the same. Al Hudson is the first person who suggested an awareness month to help preserve the county history by way of saving abandoned cemeteries.
“History is a contract between the living and the dead,” Mackie said. For people who discover a burial place on their land, Mackie said, “we are wanting people to adopt these graveyards.” Making sure the cemetery was listed on the deed, adding a fence around the cemetery and going once a year to clean up around the area, were a few things property owners should do, Mackie said.
With the increasing popularity of genealogical research, Mackie said many people may be greatly interested in visiting old cemeteries, many of which were nearby the original homeplace of a family. To be able to stand on the ground where their ancestors once stood is important to many people, Mackie said.
“It’s not ancestor worship, it’s connections,” he said. “Who am I? Where do I fit in the great scheme of life. Who came before me and what can I learn from them that can help in the future?”
Brown and Mackie are both descendants of John Williams, a confederate militia man who was killed at the Bond School House shootout in 1863 and is buried in the Isaac Williams cemetery. It was Brown’s mother who began the process of preserving the cemetery some years ago.
“I was in elementary school and we came down here and cows had been knocking over grave stones and it bothered my mother,” Brown explained. “So she went to Sears and Robuck and they were running a special on chain link fence and she told them to come up here and put a fence around it.”
The many winter storms this year have knocked down several of the trees around the cemetery, including one that has fallen across the gate. Mackie said it would take several trips to the cemetery to get it cleaned up and accurately documented, but said it was a fun adventure. He compared it to playing in the woods as a child and building forts, but with a more adult purpose.
When going out to work in documenting and researching these forgotten cemeteries, Mackie takes a number of tools including hedge trimmers, tape measure and even dowsing tools that can assist in locating graves with missing headstones. Mackie also takes red, white and blue flags that are used to mark each grave. A red flag is placed at each headstone, a white at each foot stone and a blue flag is placed in places where a possible grave may be. Mackie also makes a map of each graveyard and turns the information in to the state for documentation.
He also follows some very specific steps such as contacting the property owner to request permission to examine the graveyard. Cemeteries are considered county property, even if they are on land owned by a private land owner and there are penalties for destroying abandoned cemeteries. Mackie said his goal is to work closely with the property owner to educate them on the historical treasure that is part of their property.
“We want the property owner to know that we’re here and to thank them for helping us out and make sure his deed includes the graveyard if the property is every sold or resurveyed.”
Mackie also takes time to pause for reflection and say a prayer when entering an abandoned cemetery.
“I like to start with a silent prayer for the people here and the work we are getting ready to do,” he said. “We are remembering people. A cemetery before 1913 may be the only source of information that these people ever lived.”
Brown said that to visit and work in the burial place of his ancestors gave him the “satisfaction of leaving something to last a long time.”
Mackie said that much like an artist, there is a great sense of accomplishment and peacefulness that comes with the work of rejuvenating and recording the history of these forgotten places.
“When you come into a graveyard like this that’s grown up and you can remove all the limbs and small trees and mark it out, it’s a work of art,” he said. “It’s like an artist feels when you’re alone and working with your craft, it’s a sense of peace.”
For more information about locating, documenting and restoring abandoned cemeteries, contact Andrew Mackie at 336-428-8471 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kitsey E. Burns can be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.