04/30/07 — Clearing way for history

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Clearing way for history

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 30, 2007 1:50 PM

Evelyn Shepard knew some of her relatives were buried in the former Lightner Cemetery in the Mar-Mac community, but shied away from going until recently.

"I had been talking about this for years," she admits. "It was once locked up, and I never knew where the gravesite was."

When she finally went last month, she was surprised to see the fence around the cemetery was down.

Alarmed, Ms. Shepard said she "thought they were going to do something with the graveyard and my family didn't know anything about it."

Upon further investigation, she learned the land, which previously also had a house on it, had been acquired by the county. Since Hurricane Floyd and the flood several years ago, much of the surrounding neighborhood that includes Bryan Boulevard and Buckhorn Road has become virtually uninhabited.

"We ended up with it through the years after Floyd, the flood and FEMA," said Brant Brown, building superintendent for the county.

The county was responsible for maintaining the cemetery, but officials said they did not have the manpower to clear out all the overgrown brush and debris that had accumulated over the years.

"Occasionally we have sent out people to clean up the area," said Connie Price, county planning director. "Before we acquired the land five or six years ago, it was grown up then, and it's worsened."

The men said they welcomed anyone willing to take on the project of sprucing up the area.

"It's not a problem as far as the county's concerned," Brown said.

"If they want to take charge of that cemetery, I'm sure that could be worked out on a regular basis," Price said.

That's exactly what Yvonne Stanley wanted to hear. For years, she lived on Buckhorn Road and for years, she said the cemetery "has been a burden on my heart."

Her brother was killed in World War II and while he wasn't buried in Lightner Cemetery, she had been working toward getting the property at the end of her street cleaned up. She and Ms. Shepard became acquainted through a mutual friend.

"Since her brother was (buried) there and he was killed in World War II, it was just a bond for us," she said.

Ms. Stanley called Price and Brown and secured permission to spearhead clean-up efforts. The two women have tried to go out there whenever their schedules permit.

A lot of headstones are gone or names can't be found and the flood knocked over some of the markers, Ms. Shepard said. Brush and debris have also consumed much of the property.

But like one searching for buried treasure, the ladies say they are already being rewarded with some unexpected surprises.

"When we came to look for gravesites and started digging and found my uncle's, I got excited," Ms. Shepard said. "Then we started finding others.

"I found some of my family's headstones and we're finding a lot of veterans out there. My brother was a veteran -- he died in the Korean War -- and we found his headstone."

Ms. Shepard has yet to locate her father and grandmother's plots, but is confident she will.

In the meantime, the rich history being unearthed is priceless, the women say. Already they have located veterans from World Wars I and II, as well as the Korean War, with some plots dating back to people born in 1886.

Likening it to "finding a prize package," Ms. Stanley said the continual discoveries are at times bittersweet.

"It's just amazing. It does something to you as you uncover another marker, another name," Ms. Shepard said.

Some of the tombstones are harder to find "until we dig down," Ms. Stanley said. "It's just like an Easter egg hunt."

The women go at their own pace, and while they are hoping for volunteers to step forward and assist them with some of the work, say they don't necessarily need a crowd. There is some element of risk, so caution is advised.

There are also challenges. Matching names to gravesites and finding ways to honor the deceased are just two concerns.

The women have tried to do their homework.

"It used to belong to Lightner (Funeral Home)," Ms. Shepard said. "We went there to find out where (people) were buried. A lot were not marked. We went through some old books."

"Even though the markings are not there, we'll go back to the books and do some research," Ms. Stanley said. "I think once we get it all uncovered, hopefully some of these people that have families in that cemetery, they'll come forward and help us identify them."

And if they can make headway in time to commemorate Memorial Day the end of next month, that would also be great.

The goal is to have flags marking every veteran's grave, Ms. Shepard said.

"I do not want them to be forgotten (and) I don't want another Memorial Day to pass without them recognized," she said. "That would fulfill a dream."

Some have already offered help, Ms. Stanley said. Jack Bennett, owner of adjacent Busco Beach, is providing dirt, and T.C. Dickerson Trucking will haul it to the site.

A few more willing workers will bring the project closer to completion.

"Anyone that has any information about the cemetery, whether they want to work or not, call us," Ms. Stanley said.

Ms. Stanley can be reached at 736-1919 and Ms. Shepard's number is 581-0751.