September 6, 2009

Historical group protecting plots

Misty Watson

There’s a plot of land off South Dixie Road that seems empty — but it’s not.

There are no markers, no fences, nothing to indicate it’s a cemetery except a few places where the ground has sunken in a little.

“I wouldn’t have known it was a cemetery,” said Mitch Adams, a senior GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technician for Whitfield County. “I only know it’s one because Marvin (Sowder) told me it was and because there are indentations in the ground.” Sowder is a local history enthusiast.

Members of the Whitfield County Historical Preservation Commission were concerned some of the county’s cemeteries might be lost to development if they’re not recorded. Adams and Sowder are working to map the county’s burial sites so that anyone with a GPS (Global Positioning System) can find them. They are beginning with the ones in the most danger of being lost, such as unmarked sites and those in pastures and in wooded areas.

The project does not record who is buried at each site, only the name of the cemetery. There is a book released by the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society that records who is buried at each site.

Sowder helped create maps of each of the county’s cemeteries for the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society several years ago, but they did not have access to the technology that allows them to record the sites using GPS.

“We need to have (burial sites) recognized and marked so they are not lost,” Sowder said. “These people, even though they are dead, they have rights.... They need to be preserved and respected.”

Adams said the information will be used by county officials to create a map to determine where people can build. For example, if a developer submits plans for a subdivision, county officials will be able to easily see if the new development would disturb a burial site.

Developers and individuals could also look at the information before deciding to buy land, he said.

Sowder said he is often contacted by people looking for where their ancestors are buried. He uses the cemetery map that already exists to help them find the area, but some are located away from the roadways. When this project is complete, he will be able to give them the longitude and latitude of the burial sites to help people find more obscure sites, such as those in the middle of pastures.

Adams and Sowder have plotted a few of the county’s burial sites already, including the Cox-Morgan Cemetery off South Dixie Road.

“Within a couple of days (of plotting it) we got an e-mail from someone looking for that cemetery,” Sowder said. “His great-grandfather was buried there and he couldn’t find it. We gave the guy the GPS coordinates so he could find it.”

The project “has a lot of good uses,” he said. “Anyone with a GPS can go right to any cemetery (in Whitfield County).”

Judy Alderman, president of the Prater’s Mill Foundation and member of the preservation commission, is glad to see the project being done.

“We have two different sites here at Prater’s Mill with no tombstones,” she said. “They’re recording places like that without tombstones.”

The Quillian Cemetery, which is off Dawnville Road in a field, contains the burial site of a Revolutionary War Soldier, Alderman said.

The project will also plot the larger, well-marked cemeteries, such as West Hill and Antioch, as well as church cemeteries, Sowder said.