State News

April 12, 2014

Group aims to restore forgotten cemeteries Eds: An AP Member Exchange.

A temporary, handwritten sign marks the site of the small cemetery. It reads “New Bethel Church, Strickland Cemetery.”

The final word has already faded though the sign was erected only a few months prior. The sign was placed there by the Restoration and Preservation Mission, a Gainesville-based organization that focuses on restoring abandoned or neglected African-American cemeteries.

“You couldn’t tell there was anything there just walking through the woods unless you stumbled on a headstone, literally,” said Dave Bahr, executive secretary to the president of the Sugar Hill Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I was actually surprised. When I saw this cemetery, I was surprised it was so grown up. You didn’t see any big trees but in the next 20 years you would have seen trees start to grow up in the middle of it.”

Utility crews stumbled upon the cemetery and notified city officials.

James Brooks, a member of the mission, said Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann told him about the cemetery after it was discovered and he investigated.

Mission members and youth volunteers from the Sugar Hill Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cleared the overgrown cemetery on Strickland Drive in Gainesville one afternoon in December. But the forgotten cemetery has revealed a mystery, leaving the volunteers with few clues and more questions.

Fewer than 10 headstones from the 1920s to the 1950s are marked graves, and property records indicate the owner is the defunct New Bethel Church. The church is thought to have been located next door.

A few of the graves are marked with stone monuments. The more recent, marked graves belong to members of the Welchel and Quillan families.

One of the most recent of the marked graves belongs to Dr. E. Welchel, who was born in 1883 and died in 1953.

“He was a dentist, a black dentist in the local community,” Brooks said. “I think he was reared over in that area there before they built the lake. There were blacks who had farm land that’s now under the lake. And that’s right near the edge of where the lake is now.”

Mission member Anderson Flen said a few of the gravestones appear fairly new and expensive, indicating a level of permanency in the forgotten cemetery.

“But there again, who were these people? It’s such a mystery around there,” he said. “It’s a story we’re trying to uncover that we just haven’t gotten a complete handle on.”

Volunteers placed dozens of red and white flags to designate other possible gravesites, several indicated by sunken ground.

Brooks said community volunteers are helping to research the genealogy and will try to contact any surviving relatives.

Noah Johnson, a member of the Think Initiative aimed at encouraging boys toward success, was tasked with researching the cemetery.

The 16-year-old said he researched the names inscribed on the tombstones through local records at the library and through online services such as Ancestry.com. But he had little luck.

Johnson said he found basic records and the occupations of a few people, but he hopes to find more because he believes everyone deserves to be remembered.

“We’re having a problem finding descendants who really know the history of that cemetery,” Flen said. “We have some names out there that are distant relatives of people, like the Welchels and Stricklands, but there isn’t a direct relationship. We’re trying to unravel information about who were these people and who would have information on them and where can we get information from.”

This is the fourth cemetery the mission has cleared in its 14 years.

In the past the mission cleared an abandoned cemetery in Gillsville, the Eureka Church Cemetery on Athens Highway in Gainesville and the Wahoo Church Cemetery on Nancy Creek Road just outside of the Gainesville city limits. Those projects were large and stretched out over years in some cases.

Flen said he believes these projects are important because it preserves history that might otherwise have been lost.

“These are the persons and individuals who helped build this community’s foundation,” Flen said. “We should know something about them. For many of them, they made tremendous sacrifices and if we don’t remember them and we continue to forget our history, to me I think, we really lose who we are. We forget that others made tremendous sacrifices so we can have what we have.”

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