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Deterioration from neglect

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Many cemeteries disappear over time without records or recourse

By Brad Bowman

County cemeteries constantly face the challenges of change and perpetual care.

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Similar to  historic homes and buildings, cemeteries and tombstones, the landmarks of a family’s loved ones, can be destroyed, demolished and disappear simply by neglect.

There are an estimated 218 cemeteries throughout Henry County including the larger city cemeteries in Campbellsburg, Eminence, Pleasureville, Port Royal and New Castle.

From small private family cemeteries scattered across farms in the region to large-scale church community burial sites, the path of progress, issues of ownership and remaining family members seal the fate of those who have gone before us.

“We are dealing with a similar situation in Louisville,” said Allison Martin, Director of Communications for the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office. “When you have a cemetery and plots are sold, a certain amount is put back for future care. Cemeteries at churches or family property are taken care out of the goodness of someone’s heart. When rural churches fold, the cemeteries become an issue. If we can’t prove ownership of a cemetery we can’t hold anyone liable for their upkeep.”

New Castle

In the canons of local folklore, residents speak of cemeteries in New Castle

that have disappeared entirely from New Castle. A mix of church and family cemeteries in New Castle span the breadth of the problem.

The 1882 Shelby, Henry County Atlas indicates cemeteries belonging to New Castle Christian Church on South Main Street and a Baptist church on West Church Street that burned down.

The atlas map indicates cemeteries at both properties. The property marked as the New Castle Christian Church cemetery now has a baseball field on it, and according to locals has always been known as such.

Henry County resident, former legislator and attorney John Barry Jr., remembers watching softball being played on the grounds.

“I can remember as far back as the age of 10, now 68 years ago, of being in the fifth grade watching a game there,” Berry said. “It was used by the New Castle school system as far back as I can remember. I remember it being referred to as a cemetery. I looked at records and couldn’t find any indication of a cemetery being there.”

Berry joined the Lions Club in 1962 when the baseball field came under the club’s care. The Lions Club put up the money for the chain link fence, dugout and concession stand.

“I remember Boots Singleton hit a ball over the gymnasium behind the school house when they were playing Campbellsburg,” Berry said. “I loved playing softball.”

Berry said when the Lions Club looked into liablity if an injury occurred at the baseball field the property was given the only existing deed.

“We kept up the repair, maintained the facilities and claimed it as far back as my membership,” Berry said. “The Lions Club claimed the property as adverse possession and maintained it as a matter of right for 40 years or more.”

Berry said the club deeded the property to the city with the understanding the city would lease it back to the club for 99 years.

New Castle attorney Joe Yates has similar recollections.

“In 1959 or 1960 Granville Vaughn, Ronald Rose and my father started a Little League program there,” Yates said. “I can remember the umpire would stop the game when Katie Clements who ran a gas station between the church and the school board building would walk through left field to go home.”

Yates said that his father dug the holes for the light poles at the field.

“They didn’t find anything when they dug, but they hit a dark area of ground,” Yates said.

New Castle City Commissioner Harry Mitchell and historian Hammer Smith have reliable sources for both cemeteries.

“I remember my grandmother being upset about the ball field,” Mitchell said. “She said she had a brother buried there. I remember hearing that they used parts of the tombstones as bases.”

Smith’s recollections and research confirm the cemetery’s existence.

“There was a base of a headstone against the northern fence,” Smith said. “I remember when I worked for the board of education I saw people along the fence row. They were poking in the grass with a stick looking for the cemetery because they had relatives buried there. Some of the members of Richard Shuck’s gang (the Owen and Henry County Marauders in the late 1800s), Goodridge and Simmons, were buried there too.”

Smith said the Baptist church cemetery has a similar story.

“There is a house built on top of it now,” Smith said. “I was looking at property with a black man that remembers growing up in a cabin with his mother there and playing amongst the, what he called, headstones.”

Smith started the project of locating cemeteries in the county and compiling a book listing those interred.

“I was working at the time and Price Meek, who lived in Smithfield, finished it,” Smith said. “The state took it over, but we published a book here ourselves compiling the lists. I have field notes for each cemetery with all the stones he could read with comments on them including marked graves and those with just an upright rock sticking out of the ground.”

According to Smith, the deteriorating state of cemeteries should be corrected.

“It’s a respect for the people that have gone before us,” Smith said. “We need to take care of the cemeteries and not allow them to be vandalized.”

 Almost illegible tombstones lay in a grove of trees near Osage apartments in New Castle belonging to the Brinker and Gist family.  The apartment complex mows around the headstones on the property, but some cemeteries scattered throughout the county aren’t so lucky.

Mary Johnson’s mother and father rest in one of those cemeteries.

Pleasureville

Next to the Dutch Tract Cemetery, the large cemetery in Pleasureville on Cemetery Road, separated by a fence, lays the ‘Colored Cemetery’ or ‘Ditto Cemetery’ named after someone who supposedly donated the land.

The Dutch Tract Cemetery Charter’s map does not show the ‘Colored Cemetery’ as part of its land. The Shelby County PVA map conflicts with the charter’s map and includes the adjoining cemetery.

Some of the more familiar names in Henry County’s history are engraved on the headstones. Names like Foree, Banta, Schuck, Barton and Moody share the cemetery with veterans.

Johnson’s parents, Everett and Estella Johnson, are buried there. Johnson moved from Pleasureville in the 1960s to pursue a career. She lived in New York and worked in Manhattan for 30 years before returning to Kentucky. 

Since moving back, Johnson has tried to get funding for the upkeep of the cemetery where her relatives have been buried.

In 2006, Johnson applied to the Governor’s Office for Local Development for a cemetery preservation fund. Johnson said she approached Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger, but that he advised her to be vigilant.

“She has been working on this for years,” Rothenburger said. “Although those funds were not huge a lot of preservationists were using funds for mapping the gravesites or to restore headstones. She is a true advocate for the cemetery. She’s been working on this for years. She is a true advocate for the cemetery and restoration.”

Johnson can’t afford to fund the upkeep and hopes to find someone to maintain the cemetery.

“It’s been very frustrating. It’s been known as the ‘Colored Cemetery’ or ‘Ditto Cemetery’ since I was a kid. All of the black families have since moved away from Pleasureville and there is no one to help care for it,” Johnson said. “I would just want it to be preserved and taken care of like the cemetery next to it. “

Johnson said the need for preservation honors not just her family but those of the county.

“It’s important because it is our history,” Johnson said. “We have people buried there that have protected this country. There must be someone and someway to help this cemetery be taken care of.”