“Old cemeteries are markers of human history, of all the love, sweat, toil, tears, joys and triumphs of the past. They are links to family we never knew, they are sources of history and they tell us a great deal about ourselves culturally and socially. Therefore, there is nothing sadder than to come across a crumbling, decaying and near-gone relic of a cemetery and to feel helpless to do anything about this loss of heritage " — source unknown
Centerville residents Joe and Ann Allred learned about FindAGrave.com while attending the 2014 RootsTech conference sponsored by FamilySearch, a subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The individual in a booth touting the site, which is the repository of millions of pieces of cemetery data aimed at giving genealogists another tool to find elusive ancestors, told them, "We can find anyone." All that was needed was the name of a deceased person, he said, and the grave could be found. Providing, of course, that someone had submitted the pertinent information to FindAGrave.com.
Ann Allred jumped on the prospect. She knew she had ancestors buried in the Thomas Family Cemetery in Pink Hill, North Carolina. Earlier, relatives had located the cemetery and reported it to be in "deplorable condition." Unfortunately, after the passage of time, they couldn't recall the location.
At the RootsTech booth, the Allreds provided the name of Ann's grandfather, Rodolph Jackson Humphrey. Nothing. They had better luck with Rodolph's mother, Marenda Anne Thomas Humphrey. The results included a Google Earth photo and GPS coordinates. The Allreds tucked the information away for future research reference.
Only two months after the RootsTech discovery, the Allreds' daughter, Marinda Bush, her husband, Elijah, and their four sons, Jacob, Joseph, Hyrum and Danny, made a car trip from their home in Springfield, Virginia, to Pink Hill, North Carolina, to see what they could find about the North Carolina cemetery.
Armed with the GPS information her parents had harvested in Salt Lake City, the family followed precisely the GPS instructions and — voila! — nothing. They found a field all right, but there was no hint that a cemetery was anywhere in sight. Discouraged, they continued to drive around enjoying the local sights. When they stopped for lunch, one of the boys announced the need for a restroom, and since there were no accommodations to be seen, Elijah took the little fellow to a residence that was close by to see if the residents would allow for emergency use of their facilities.
Pay dirt! Entirely unexpectedly, the owner of the house was Ralph Cottle, who owned the farm across the street and knew exactly where the old Thomas Cemetery was located. It was near the center of the field, which was freshly planted with cotton.
"Back about 100 yards from the road was a patch of wild, overgrown trees and vines surrounded by a broken cinder block fence," Marinda Bush wrote of the experience. "This was the Joseph Thomas Cemetery."
The rusty gate was "sewed" shut by vines, but Elijah climbed over the wall and ducked under the trees to get inside the cemetery. The first gravestone he found was that of Marinda's great-great grandmother, Marenda Anne Humphrey, for whom she is named. Next to Marenda was the grave of Mary Suzan Miller, her mother, who lost her husband when he fought as a soldier with the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Widowed, she and her children continued to run the farm the best they could without the help of slaves, who had left the farm when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Only one remained, and he stayed with the family until his death at age 100-plus.
Years of Ann Allred's family history lay scattered in piles of weeds, tangles of vines and broken ground. The greatest disappointment as they scurried around trying to make headway against the entropy that had taken over the cemetery was that no sign of Rodolph Jackson Humphrey could be found.
They were preparing to return to the car when Eliijah, who was prodding the soil with a stiff wire, heard a click. He maneuvered the wire around and tried again. Another click. This was no rock! In short order, Rodolph's headstone appeared from beneath the layers of dirt where it had sunk out of sight.
"We found buried treasure," Jacob, now 9, said.
"I think we had Heavenly Father and our ancestors helping us," added Jacob, who will soon be 11. The Bush boys are becoming seasoned genealogists.
The sequel to the discovery story is that in October 2014, Joe and Ann Allred and family members returned to Pink Hill and did a masterful job of reclaiming the cemetery. They had to wait until the cotton was harvested and had a couple of weeks to do the job before Cottle had to plant his winter wheat. Members of the local Alberston Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many of the local townspeople assisted. In all, they uncovered 37 burial sites. The family, with the help of others, spent thousands of dollars to repair damaged gravestones, rebuild the wall (using both new and old cinder blocks) and to re-landscape the cemetery.
For Ann Allred, it was a time for forging new familial relationships among both the living and the dead — and for being grateful for the modern technology that gave her a piece of priceless heritage.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.