By Estella Fullmer Brown
For Hometown News
Four men from Oak Hill have vowed to reclaim the town's first cemetery on the east side of the city from the thick Florida vegetation.
The cemetery, known historically as the Saints Cemetery, is situated a few miles down a bumpy, overgrown four-wheel drive path a quarter of a mile east of the Sinners Cemetery. After two years of back-breaking work searching for the graves and then clearing out the vegetation, they have managed to reclaim a section of the historic community cemetery. They know there are more graves to find, however.
City Commissioner Ron Engele became involved with the project just over two years ago when some local residents asked when the city was going to provide help in cleaning up the cemetery.
Commissioner Engele looked into the history of the land and discovered city funds could not be used because it appeared to be located on private land.
Access to both the Sinners and Saints Cemeteries is through private land owned by Steve Uniton who bought about 430 acres in the area and one day plans to develop it, particularly if the proposed Spaceport comes to fruition. Mr. Uniton thinks the land will then become a prime development opportunity. But for now, most of the land has been claimed by the natural vegetation and wildlife.
Mr. Uniton's land near the cemetery was a huge city dump in the '40s, '50s and '60s, according to Commissioner Engele.
"They have cleaned it up and have brownfield wells all over the place to monitor it," he said.
The brownfield wells allow for samples of the groundwater and soil to be taken to determine if any toxins are present from the old dump site. Although some debris still litters the area, the vast majority of the trash has been removed.
Commissioner Engele has been assisting three Oak Hill residents who have family buried in the historic cemetery. Harvey Martin, Nathanial Ricks and Johnny Lee Jackson have spent many weekends chopping down trees and underbrush and hauling it away to uncover the grave markers. They had a map of the cemetery and stories from Kate Jones to help them locate some of the graves, but many markers have been moved or destroyed.
The cemetery was divided into the two sections back when the land was first donated by William "Bill" Williams in the 1860s.
The Saints side of the cemetery was for folks that went to church and the Sinners side was for everyone else. If a person or their family could not afford to be buried elsewhere, they were buried in the Saints and Sinners Cemetery. Mr. Ricks stated many homeless and indigent people have been buried there, but most are in unmarked graves.
Sorting out where the individual plots are and who is buried in them has been as much of a challenge as beating back the dense foliage and undergrowth, according to Commissioner Engele. Vandals pulled up many of the little metal grave markers and threw them all in a pile down one of the trails. There are also many gravestones that are broken, knocked over and some pieces even dumped hundreds of feet from the actual gravesites.
The four have managed to uncover the graves of Bill Williams' son, John Williams, and daughter-in-law. They suspect Mr. Williams and his wife are buried next to their son, but the gravestones are gone, so they can't be sure.
"I became very interested in this cemetery when I found a veteran's grave at the end of the area we have cleared so far," Commissioner Engele said. "His name was Josh Maynor and he was a World War II vet of the 450 MP Detachments."
Honoring the veterans is close to his heart because he served his country during wartime as well, he said. "It is important to me that these graves are taken care of so the vets and the others buried here get the respect they deserve."
The cemetery is recorded by the state as a historical cemetery, according to Edgewater's Historian, JoAnne Sikes, author of "The Story of Two Hawks." It was started by the founder of Oak Hill, a freed African-American slave, William "Bill" Williams, and his Native American wife, Flora Williams.
"Miss Kate Jones told me the story of how old Williams got his land," Nathanial Ricks said. "Bill Williams was on a dredge boat on the river when he saw a hill and he turned to the captain of the boat and told him he would sure like to have that land."
Ms. Jones told Mr. Ricks the captain instructed Mr. Williams to stake a claim on the land he wanted. So when they put into shore, Mr. Williams did just that and staked out 90 acres, which included that hill he'd seen from the river. The hill was named after him and is still called Bill's Hill today. The claim was recorded in 1863; just a few months after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in the United States.
According to Ms. Sikes, who has researched Edgewater's founders John and Esther Hawks, it is believed Mr. Williams built a home on or very near Bill's Hill and started an orange grove near there on the land he staked out. Later he was credited with donating land to build the Florida East Coast Railway that went through Oak Hill in 1892-93 and which brought many workers to the area. Flora Williams is believed to have worked for the Bouchelle family in New Smyrna Beach. They had a son, John, and a daughter Mary. Mary later married Isaac Wilson and they are believed to be buried in the Saints Cemetery, too, among the 12 documented graves.
The last burial in the Saints cemetery was a minister, Daniel A. Maynor, who died in 1983. Since then the Saints cemetery has been left to the wild and neglected until Misters Martin, Jackson and Ricks started working to restore it, along with Commissioner Engele and a few other members of the community.
The Sinners Cemetery has been a little bit better maintained through the years, but has suffered some neglect and vandalism. It is still used, with the last burial just a few months ago. "If they can't afford to buy a plot someplace else, they can still be buried here," said Mr. Martin, whose brother, Terrance Martin, was buried there among other family members in 1982. He was only 21 and had been a SP 4 in the U.S. Army. The family was never told how he died.
Although it is not quite as overgrown as the Saints side, The Sinners Cemetery has not escaped the vandalism or ravages of time and weather. Many of the graves are not marked since so many of the metal markers were moved. Mr. Martin and Commissioner Engele have been making cement markers for the graves they can identify that don't have a headstone. They hope having a more permanent marker will prevent any more lost graves in the future.
"What we need is some help," Mr. Jackson said.
"Yes," agreed Mr. Martin, "we need some help clearing out the brush and locating the unmarked graves."
They hope they can get some more members of the community out to help with the clean-up and also some federal, state or private funding to restore the cemetery, plot the graves and purchase or repair headstones.
Commissioner Engele is in the process of researching various avenues for funding. Interested volunteers can contact him at Oak Hill City Hall at (386) 345-3522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.