After a 2011 visit to the final resting place of her grandfather, Lawrence A. Reeves, at the historic Wiley College Cemetery, Kametra Newhouse Cartwright and other descendants have been on a mission, trying to bring some much-needed attention to the disheveled conditions of the grounds.
“It’s a lot going on out here and Wiley’s not taking responsibility,” said Cartwright, sharing how she initially couldn’t get to her grandfather’s grave because of the overgrown property.
It was disheartening considering the fact that she never had the pleasure of meeting her grandfather. Thus, a visit to his burial site was something she was highly anticipating.
“I found him, but I couldn’t get to him because of the trees and bushes and debris,” Cartwright recalled. “I was disappointed because he died years before I was born … and this is how his resting place has been kept up. It was disappointing.”
The knee-deep grass and debris were only the tip of Cartwright’s dismay. More heartbreaking were the hidden graves she found in the back near a pond and wooded area that’s in dire need of bush-hogging. The plots, including that of a World War II veteran, are buried under thick bushes and debris, making them inaccessible to reach or even see.
The fact that the site has now become a dumping ground cluttered with worn furniture, old toys and storage bins added to her misery. The site of a large downed tree obstructing a path was also frustrating.
“I was disgusted because I’m like now they’re dumping stuff back here, and this tree is what really gets me. That means nobody comes out here and sees … nobody from Wiley even comes out here to see what’s going on out here,” said Cartwright.
So disturbed by the conditions, Cartwright and fellow descendants of the Reeves family devoted this past Father’s Day weekend to clean up not only their loved one’s plot, but mow the entire visible area of the grounds that could be handled with either a push or riding lawnmower.
“(We decided to) put forth an effort to make something happen since Wiley didn’t,” said Rhonda S. Davis, daughter of the late Lawrence A. Reeves, Cartwright’s aunt and a Wiley alumna.
“We want to at least make it look decent around where my dad is buried,” said Davis.
“And we’re actually doing more than we’re obligated to do because this is all what we’re told we’re supposed to do, but of course we’re just cutting the whole thing,” Davis said of the property. “It needs to be done.”
“Whoever has the property next to the cemetery, they take care of their property, but if you’re going this way, nobody cares,” added Cartwright.
According to the site’s historical marker, the Wiley College Cemetery Club, organized in 1959, maintains the historic graveyard.
Davis and Cartwright have documented the unkempt environment for several months now on their Facebook pages, posting videos of the site along with photos. They’ve even tagged Wiley’s president, Dr. Herman J. Felton, in the posts to bring attention to the matter and also reached out to Rickey Hodge, who is the trustee over the cemetery.
The family finds the conditions alarming, especially given the historical significance of the site.
According to the historical marker, the site is the final resting place of the Rev. Matthew Dogan, president of Wiley College from 1896 to 1942. Dogan’s family plot is also there as well as veterans of the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The cemetery also contains a large number of unmarked graves.
Giving a statement on behalf of Wiley, public relations director Tammy Taylor confirmed that the cemetery is not a perpetual cemetery.
“Families and loved ones are responsible for the upkeep of the plots, and the college is responsible for the upkeep of the grounds,” she explained.
Davis said they fully understand that loved ones are responsible for the upkeep of their relatives’ plots, but what they don’t understand is why the college has not been maintaining grounds since the institution is the responsible party.
“We understand our dad’s grave is our responsibility, but the entire grounds are a mess and have not been maintained in years,” she said. “There was a tree that had overgrown over his grave and (his grave) could not be located for a long time.”
Cartwright said when she first came to visit her grandfather’s grave, the tree was so overbearing that she had to duck down just to view his headstone.
“That’s when I started making noise about it,” she said about the maintenance of the grounds. “As I said, he passed away way before I was born, I didn’t know him and I’m real sensitive when it comes to stuff like that, so I just felt like it was disrespectful and it hurt my feelings that this is what it looks like out here.”
“It’s not just him, it is other families out here, too, that are their loved ones gravesites,” Cartwright said of why she and her family is so passionate about bringing attention to the matter.
The family finds the conditions alarming, especially given the historical significance of the site and the fact that it’s even a part of the historic Buard Historic Trail.
“A college president is buried here,” said Davis.
The Reeves family said they’ve noticed the college announce a cleanup and Ringing of the Bell event at the cemetery during Founder’s Week in March, but other than that, they haven’t seen any action taking place.
Plan in Place
Since the family’s Father’s Day weekend cleanup, Wiley has advised they have a plan in place, going forward.
“To ensure that the grounds are well cared for, we will set and follow a maintenance schedule to keep the grass cut and the premises clean,” Taylor informed.
Pauline Reeves, the matriarch of the Reeves family, said it touched her to see her daughters and their families take it upon themselves to devote Father’s Day weekend to tend to the grounds.
The matriarch said it was not only done out of respect for her husband, who has been there since 1973, but out of respect of all of the burial community.
“It’s like these people have been (forgotten),” said Pauline Reeves. “We haven’t forgotten them and this to me is (love) …
“For my kids and their husbands and whatever to come down here and take care of their loved ones, that means so much to me,” she said.
Bill T. Whitis, president of the Harrison County Historical Commission, a nonprofit that identifies historic resources within the county and plans for the preservation of the county’s historic and cultural resources, which includes the welfare of cemeteries, said the HCHC always appreciates volunteers helping maintain cemeteries.
Part of the HCHC’s duties is helping entities obtain a historical marker for their sites. Whitis noted that the Wiley College Cemetery is one of 19 cemeteries in the county with a historical marker. It was installed in 1989.
The cemetery was established in 1873, according to HCHC records, and boasts a community of interesting figures, including a World War I bugler and several educators.
Additionally, “there’s lots of unmarked graves and lots of children,” he added.
He noted that part of the HCHC’s mission is to monitor the more than 200 cemeteries in the county.
“We monitor the over 200 cemeteries in the county. If we see any illegal dumping or excessive dumping, we try to call the sheriff’s office and (try to get inmate help), but really the cemeteries are under the direction of whoever owns the property that they’re sitting on,” he said. “Unfortunately, some cemeteries don’t have ownership. We’re not really able to tell anyone they have to clean up their cemetery.”
In the wake of the Reeves family’s cleanup efforts, Whitis said he’s made some inquiries about what can be done in similar situations and what responsibilities may be expected with cemeteries that aren’t set up as perpetual care cemeteries.
“Very few of the 200-plus cemeteries in Harrison County are set up as perpetual care cemeteries, which have specific rules by law about their upkeep,” he explained. “Wiley College Cemetery was not at its inception set up as one.
“Cemeteries set up as perpetual care, and collect fees for such at the time of purchase, or in the course of ongoing cemetery association dues or donations unless otherwise stated in the associations bylaws, in the state of Texas only cover the grounds and roadways/paths,” he added. “Care for markers, should they become damaged, start leaning or fall over and get damaged are not covered.”
Whitis has met with many cemetery overseers and spoken with them about upkeep, or lack thereof, as well as rules they follow in maintaining the cemetery, he reported.
“For cemeteries that are not designated as perpetual care, it seems the general rule has always been in place that family members have always been responsible for the upkeep of their relatives’ gravesites,” he said.
Whitis noted that in some instances, adjoining churches have taken pride in preserving the burials of those from their own history and our county’s past.
“Mallalieu United Methodist Church of Marshall, for example, has taken it upon themselves to help oversee maintenance at McJohnson Cemetery, located behind the car wash at Pinecrest and Highway 59,” he said. ”Exceptional volunteerism such as this can sometimes be overseen, or even underappreciated, but without community work like this being done, parts of our history can potentially be lost to an overgrowth of plant life in a few short years.
“The Harrison County Historical Commission appreciates the work, no matter how small or large, by our county’s (sometimes anonymous) volunteers who help to keep these sites viable for future generations.”
Whitis has frequented the historic Wiley Cemetery a lot,he said, making sure trespassers understand that it’s a cemetery that needs to be respected.
“I go in there; I’ve chased people out fishing; I’ve chased people out walking their dogs,” he said. “I’ve told them this belongs to the Wiley College Cemetery Association.”