Gravehopping Tales - Part 3

by Gregory J Winters
July 2008

 

Sometimes I wonder if traipsing around in the backwoods and the hills searching for old family cemeteries is worth it.  There have been many times when my efforts have been thwarted by impassible trails, bad weather, or simply the inability to locate the site at all.  When I set out this time to locate the Bonnett Cemetery, I was optimistic because there were testimonies from others who had visited the site, so I thought I wouldn't have too much trouble.

Well, a lot can change in just a few years!

My brother, Lon, and I drove up and down the back roads south of Elm Grove, West Virginia trying to find the entrance to the property where the graveyard was allegedly located.  It took more than a couple passes because the 'road' ended up actually being a private drive, and the property in question didn't even come out to the main road itself.

Slowly we drove into the yard.  I noticed that the old farmhouse and barn somewhat resembled the buildings described in the directions:  close together, separated by a drive, old stone foundations built by Lewis Bonnett himself.  What was interesting about this setup was that the drive was actually built over a tunnel constructed between the house and the barn that allowed smooth passage in case of inclement weather, or more seriously, presence of Indians.

We slowly drove through the property, correctly reasoning that the cemetery could not have been located there.  We saw a gate further in the distance which seemed to be an entrance to a larger tract of land that possessed many hills on it - just right for an old cemetery!  Although the gate was open, there were numerous signs tacked on it warning NO TRESPASSING, so, reluctantly, we stopped and tried to decide what to do.

I finally chose to see if anyone was home at the house next to the road, so we turned around and headed back there.  Again, I drove slowly past the house looking for signs of life.  I steered the car around the side yard attempting to get a look into the back yard, but everything seemed quiet.  I spotted a car in the main driveway, however, and thought that - unlike numerous others on the property - it seemed to be regularly used, so I pulled in behind it, got out, and proceeded to walk around back.

Oops!

Before I could even inhale, a loud snarling pit bull terrier came dashing around from the back right up on me.  I froze, but did not look the animal in the eye.  He sniffed.  He snarled and barked again.  He sniffed again.  He snarled and barked again.  To my, uh, 'chagrin,' he didn't seem to be smelling what he wanted to smell and I wondered what my fate was going to be.  Just then, a young woman appeared from the porch and ordered the hound into the house.  Reluctantly, he obeyed.  Whew!

With a game smile, I explained to her what we were after.  She knew nothing about an old cemetery, but knew definitely that there wasn't one on her property.  She explained that the property behind her had been purchased a couple of months ago by a single man who had been feverishly preparing it to build on and had been underway a couple of weeks.  She said that he was usually pretty strict about trespassers, but expressed optimism that he would allow us to carry out our mission.  She wasn't sure if he was on the property at the present time, however.

I decided to press on, having come this far and nearly been eaten by an insane dog.  We turned around and drove back up the drive and through the gate.  The road wound around and got rougher - and muddier - as we went.  (A Cadillac is not the best vehicle to use for off-roading!)

Finally, we got to a point where there was a gravel clearing and a small road which turned sharply and went down into the dark woods.  Gingerly, I steered the car down into the small road, but we didn't get very far.  In the distance, we could see that there was a small creek that ran over the road, and I wasn't about the test the Cadillac's meddle (even though it was an all-wheel drive).  Slowly, I backed the car out to the gravel junction.  That seemed to be the end.

I turned around and drove back out to the gate where I parked and proceeded to compose a note that I intended to attached to the chain on the gate explaining who I was and what I was after.  It was then that good ol' serendipity stepped in.

As I was finishing the note, a co-worker of mine called on my cell phone.  Normally, I don't pick up when I'm on vacation, but I had remembered that we hadn't had the chance to tie things up before I left, so I answered and in a couple of minutes, everything was square.  However, those few minutes turned out to be crucially important.

Just as I was about to get out of the car and leave the note, we noticed a young boy coming up the drive.  It was obvious that he was from the area, so we beckoned him over to the car.  "Howdy!  Do you live in that house up the way here?"  "What house?" he wanted to know.  "THAT house," I replied, pointing to the domicile of the killer dog.  Staring for a minute, he finally responded, "No, I don't."

"Well," I said, "would you happen to know of a small cemetery that's supposed to be on a hill right around here?"  "Sure," he said nonchalantly.  "I know where it is."  "Could you take us to it?  I'll give you a couple of bucks for your troubles."  "How much?" he asked, without a smidgen of emotion.  "How does ten bucks sound?"  He shrugged, "Sure."

Lon and I went through our wallets for small bills, but we could only come up with a five and four ones.  Sheepishly, I asked, "Will nine be enough?  We don't have any change."  "Sure," the boy said, finally a faint smile crossing his lips.  We asked how to get there and he pointed back from where we had come.  "Hop in," I said, and he jumped in the back of the car promptly smashing one of the CD cases I had resting on the seat.  Oh well, I thought, this is the price you pay to get what you need.

He stopped us at the gravel junction and we got out.  "There are two ways to get up there:  the easy way, and the hard way," he instructed.  "The easy way is the long way, and the short way is the hard way."  "Sounds like they're both hard, to me!" Lon remarked.  "We'll take the 'easy' way," I decided.  The boy pointed down the road where the creek bed lay.

As we trudged down the road, doing our best to avoid the deep mud, I explained to the young man what we were after and why.  He listened intently, and when I beseeched him not to vandalize the graves or the site, he was quite on board with it all:  "No, I would never do that," he remarked.  "I've been up there many times.  I like old things, and so do my friends."  It was refreshing to hear that.  I would hate to lead some kid up there who would promptly erase two hundred years of history.

After a quarter-mile or so, the road broke into a clearing and we could see a crew working on a large new farmhouse.  As I stared at it, the young man said, "Don't worry about those guys.  They won't care that we're here.  I know that the owner is not around today."  We waved to a couple of the men as we passed without stopping.  In front of us was 'the trail':  a steep, barely-discernable two-track road.

After a short pause, we headed up.  Talk was short as was breath.  Each time we got to what might have seemed the top, we encountered another switchback - each steeper than the last.  I wondered aloud to the group how anyone ever got a cart and a coffin up here back in the day.  To that, Lon took smaller steps and the boy only smiled.

Finally, I could see daylight at the top of the road.  The boy had arrived a minute or so before us old geezers, but with the sight of the beautiful burial ground, my strength immediately returned.  It was gorgeous - more wonderful than I had imagined.

Interestingly, the first stone I happened upon was that of Lewis Bonnett who died in 1808.  Here I was, a full 200 years later, gazing upon the gravestone of one of the founders of our frontier, knowing also that I was distantly related to him.  (There is a tangled pretzel of marriages and other connections on both the Wayt and Winters sides of my family.)

Eagerly, I breezed around the stones, not tarrying long since my camera was low on juice.  After one last longing look, my mind drifted into a sort of contemplative state for a few moments as I enjoyed the stillness of the cool mountain air.  I began to realize...

When looking for a gravesite in an ‘established’ cemetery, i.e., one that is well-kept and usually still in use, basically the only task at hand is finding the office open and staffed with a sympathetic and knowledgeable person willing to help identify the plot location in the cemetery’s records, since most of these places are too large to walk in the limited amount of time allotted to the task. Since these graveyards are still ‘open for business,’ so to speak, they have made it their duty to make sure that they know where everyone is (to the best of their abilities) and what plots are still available.

When it comes to the old, forgotten burial grounds, however, the challenges are far more numerous and difficult to overcome. Weather is always a concern – heat, rain, snow…these can all negatively impact a site location attempt, even cancel it. This means returning home, sometimes hundreds of miles away and rescheduling a new trip.

There are other elements of nature which must be considered: terrain, brush and other plant cover, insects, snakes, and even unfriendly animals, such as dogs, horses, and bulls. (Yes, I’ve encountered them all, including an ill-tempered mule!) Many of the small family cemeteries are located on private property, so permission must be procured from owners so as to not ruffle feathers. Traversing the back country can be most unpleasant carrying cameras, notebooks, and sometimes a laptop computer for reference.

Despite these hurdles, all is forgotten when the grail is located: that previously ‘lost’ grave marker which is well on its way to being reclaimed by the Earth. The exhilaration of discovery and witness fills a person with joy knowing that thanks to a strong effort and modern technology, the witness of the loved one’s final resting place will be forever preserved – long after the actual site is unidentifiable.

I have had many such moments over the past eight years tracking down the grave sites of my ancestors, but I have also experienced the failures. After exerting much time and energy to locate what is believed to be the resting place, walking every inch trying my best to read old sandstone and broken marble, I’ve come up short. No photos will be taken here today, I’m afraid!

No, it’s not an ego thing. I’m not keeping statistics. Instead, what I feel is a profound sense of sadness and dismay that my loved ones are possibly so close by, yet I cannot show the world where they lay, and thus, they are at risk of being long forgotten. It’s the memory piece that gnaws at me and makes me want to walk the burial grounds just one last time to see if I might have missed something, a small clue…anything.

I never leave these grounds willingly or quickly. Like Lot’s wife, I continuously look backwards…longingly, saying last goodbyes…knowing that I’ll probably never see the precious sights again…the peacefulness…the awful mystery of the unknowable. Someone long ago passed down some information…a clue, a record, a story for me to track, and track I did…to a dead end. I gaze around the site…the beautiful sunshine, chirping birds, the rustle of the leaves on the trees as a gentle wind passes through. Can’t any of these reveal the secrets I wish to know?

Oh, if there were some sort of a magic tool akin to one of those metal detectors that people look for coins and jewelry with which would instead match my DNA to something in the ground! Why wasn’t there a readable stone for me? Who or what could have been so inconsiderate and short-sighted not to realize that someday I would come along desperately wondering where these precious folks were buried? Sighing, I resign myself to the acceptance that maybe this particular discovery simply wasn’t meant to be.

But that doesn’t mean that I feel any less pain…

My mind came back to the present, happy that this trip wasn't going to end up in the 'loss' column!  I asked the boy what his name was and if he would mind appearing on our website, receiving proper credit for his efforts.  Without embarrassment, he declined saying that 'James' was all we needed to know.  I silently wondered if he was just naturally humble or if he has already at such a young age been soured by experiences of adult predators, but I quickly acknowledged his request.

Changing the subject, he suggested that we try gong down the mount...er, hill the 'fast way' re: STEEP.  Still up for adventure, I volunteered the choice for all of us, so down the slope of clay and weeds we went...down...down...down.  It was indeed shorter than the climb up (and it did bring us much closer to the car), but I was glad to have tree branches to hang onto for a good part of the way.

When we got back down, I turned and watched as Lon navigated the last couple hundred feet or so.  While I was doing this, without a word, James had simply moved on down the road.  I turned to say something to him and noticed that he had left.  "Hey!"  I shouted, and hustled after him.  "Give me that money I gave you."  Again, he wasn't even surprised at my request, but simply dug down into his pocket and produced the wad of bills.  I replaced the five and four ones with a twenty explaining that he had earned it, saving me far more in gas and trouble than even this.  I don't believe that he even said 'thanks,' but he did - almost - smile.

Later that evening, Lon joked to the rest of the family, "Your cousin [me] tried to kill me today!"  "I have a reputation to uphold!" I protested, and signed on to the Internet to process our 'catch of the day.'