Using trimmers and saws and a lot of brute force yanking on vines, a team of Gulf Power volunteers from Plant Crist and Environmental Affairs carved a path into a patch of densely overgrown woods to uncover a black section of the Old Muscogee Cemetery, forgotten by society and families alike.
At the same time, a smaller group fanned out to collect garbage — a whopping one ton of discarded fuel tanks, a broken toilet, paint cans, tires, clothes, a cooking pot, drink cans and pounds and pounds of beer bottles — surrounding both the white and black sections of the cemetery.
Lindsey Box, a chemical & results technician at Plant Crist, enjoyed picking up the trash because contributing to a greater cause is rewarding to her when she sees immediate and quantifiable results.
“My bachelor’s degree is in environmental, so I feel a strong sense of responsibility when it comes to participating in stewardship events,” she said. “But it’s really sad that people who come here have to look at so much trash when they visit their loved ones. Not only is it sacrilegious to pollute hallowed ground, but it’s also extremely thoughtless and cruel when the Perdido Landfill is literally five minutes away.”
The cleanup was a partnership between Gulf Power Environmental Stewardship and Northwest Florida Water Management District to help begin restoration of the late 1800s cemetery, located a stone’s throw from the Perdido River in west Cantonment.
Steve Brown, senior land manager for the Water Management District, said it would have taken him and his three-member team weeks to do what 18 Gulf Power volunteers did in half a day on May 6.
“This has been a project we’ve wanted to do for some time, but it’s very sensitive,” he said of the fragile condition of the historic gravesite. “We can’t go in with large equipment. The only way to do the brushing back and clearing out is to use hand labor. It’s tedious and labor-intensive. We are thrilled that Gulf Power employees came out to help with their expertise.”
Jeff Cole, who leads the Environmental Affairs Stewardship program, said the project was a great opportunity to help out the community.
“Cleaning up the cemetery is key for this area because a lot of historic sites in Northwest Florida are being lost to time and a lack of money and materials to get them restored,” he said. “When we can come out and help, it adds another shining star to the community and historic value of the region.”
By the end of the workday, the team revealed six headstones and numerous indentations that are believed to be unmarked or vandalized graves.
Among the graves are three marked sites of the Owens family — Elise Owens, 1885-1961; Sam Owens – 1880-1957; and what may be a son or relative, Huston Owens, 1927-1962. Huston’s head stone indicated he served as a steward’s mate 2nd class in the United States Navy Reserve.
When volunteers carefully brushed away layers of decaying leaves from his cracked, concrete tomb, they discovered a weathered U.S. flag, dusted it off and gently draped it over his headstone.
As the cleared circumference expanded, a marble monument was released from saplings and vines. Deeper in the woods the small headstone of John Brown emerged from a thick blanket of decaying leaves with hard-to-read lettering that identifies him as a war veteran.
Monuments and marble headstones that still exist are testaments to the story of Muscogee, a once a thriving timber town-turned-ghost-town. Founded in 1857 it once boasted four mills, a school, post office, train depot and fire station before the lumber industry pulled up stakes and moved on.
Eventually, many of the estimated nearly 500 citizens moved on too, leaving behind their family plots.
About two decades ago, a citizens group began restoring the neglected white section of the cemetery but many of them passed on or become too old to do the work, according to local historian Helen Allen, who has championed the restoration of the cemetery.
At the time, with no apparent family members to tend to the black section, the woods reclaimed that land. And no one had any idea how many graves rested underneath the brush and vines.
Because of its location on the Perdido River, the Water Management District purchased the land encompassing the cemetery from International Paper Company in 2006 and took over maintenance.
“As the new owners, we’ve taken over the responsibility of the cemetery because we want to do what we can to restore its integrity,” Brown said. “That’s why we are so thrilled to have the portion of the cemetery cleared out. In the future, we hope to find a university or volunteer historians willing to survey the cemetery and further the restoration.”
Rick Anderson, Plant Crist manager, said his team worked hard to help set up the cleanup project.
“I’m out here supporting my team,” he said. “It’s amazing how much they accomplished. When we got there, you could barely see through the brush. Now there are cleared paths everywhere thanks to a lot of hard work by everyone.”