McKINNEY, Texas — At the end of the historic James Herndon Trail lies one of the more unusual residential cul-de-sacs in America.
It's literally a dead-end street — a place where new, upscale homes give way to one of the oldest graveyards in Collin County.
The Herndon Cemetery, estimated to be 131 years old, is deeply embedded in Collin County lore, but the tract where three family members and 17 "unknowns" are buried was covered in thickets until a few years ago.
Now, thanks to a rare collaboration between a Dallas-based developer and historic preservationists, the cemetery not only survived intact, it got a sorely needed face-lift — and a bunch of new admirers.
"These are the best neighbors we've ever had," quipped Mark Costollo, a retired auto sales representative who recently moved to McKinney from Little Rock, Ark. "They're quiet."
Costollo, 67, and his wife picked out a lot just a stone's throw from the cemetery last February and, in July, erected their home in the Inwood Hills subdivision, which is being built by Meritage Homes Corp.
Costollo said the cul-de-sac lot cost more, and they had no reservations about living next to the cemetery.
"We think it's kind of neat because there's so much history to it," he said, gazing at the burial ground from his front doorway. "And it's like a little park."
The 1-acre cemetery, which sits on a hill overlooking the sprawl of homes being built around it, is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence and stone retaining walls.
Given its lofty perch, it's easy to spot in the neighborhood. And that's just the way the Herndon descendants — not to mention Bob Finley, the project manager who developed the lots — wanted it.
"When I talked about doing this," said Finley, the former Henry S. Miller vice president who oversaw the development, "everybody said, 'Finley, nobody's going to buy those lots near a cemetery.' I said, 'They'll be the first to go.'"
He was right.
And the sensitive way that Finley and others helped preserve and patch up the cemetery still makes at least one Herndon family descendant's eyes well up at times.
"Twelve to 14 years ago, this was a wilderness," said Jim Bundy, a fourth great-nephew of James Herndon, who settled in the area in the mid-19th century and is one of three family members buried in the cemetery.
"I didn't know how I was going to take care of it," said Bundy, who's also a member of the county's preservation group. "You look at it now, and it's just beautiful. We couldn't have asked for anything more."
Bundy and Finley knew the cemetery contained three graves, those of James Herndon and his wife, Elizabeth McGarrah, and their daughter, Ellen N. Montgomery.
But earlier research had indicated that the site also might be home to an old Indian burial ground. They soon discovered that there were, indeed, unmarked graves on the site.
The number swelled to 17. Herndon descendants and historic preservationists believe those to be the bodies of black residents because they were buried on the other side of the cemetery — and separating blacks and whites, even at death, was standard operating procedure.
"All I knew was there was a cemetery with three plots," Finley said. "And these guys called me and said, 'We have more.'"
That forced Finley to adjust his plans.
"The engineer had already platted a small cemetery here," he said. "And I had to redo the platting because it became much, much larger. It may be an acre."
He probably lost at least one home site, but Finley said preserving the cemetery was worth the cost.
"I've done 110 subdivisions," said Finley, now an independent developer. "But this one was very special because of the opportunity to preserve and honor a part of our history."
It's certainly not rare to find cemeteries next door to houses in McKinney or elsewhere, said Ted Wright, president of the Collin County Historic Preservation Group, which worked closely with the Bundy family and the developer in preserving the Herndon Cemetery.
Wright said there are 196 identified cemeteries or burial grounds in Collin County.
"And 70 percent of them are in the northern half (of the county) because of their disappearance in the south," he said. "As development rushed through Plano years ago, many of them were destroyed."
So seeing a developer willing to work hand in hand with preservationists and Herndon descendants to preserve and improve the cemetery "makes this one real special," Wright said.
The folks moving in are pleased, too.
"Why not?" asked Bundy. "They got some privacy, and they got some good neighbors."
"Quiet neighbors," Wright added.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com