Archive for Thursday, July 19, 2001

Group to restore forgotten tombstones

July 19, 2001

Margaret Johnston can cite a lot of facts about the De Soto cemetery, but don't ask her how many people are buried there.

"We really don't know," she said. "There are a lot of unmarked graves. There are places we don't dare dig, because we know there are people buried there."

As the cemetery nears its 150th anniversary, the identity of those lying under tombstones can be as remote and forgotten as those resting in unmarked graves, said Johnston, the cemetery board's secretary-treasurer. The cemetery board has started a fund financed through public donations dedicated to preserving and repairing the cemetery's neglected tombstones.

"The fund was started to repair tombstones so old there are no relatives around to fix them," she said. "We're not going to fix ones where nieces, nephews and grandchildren are still around to take care of them."

The board had a "very good response" to its Memorial Day fund-raising effort, Johnston said. The board doesn't have a dollar goal, partly because it doesn't know how many of the cemetery's 2,025 recorded tombstones fall into forgotten category. It could be a lot, because the cemetery has been located on the hill overlooking the river from De Soto's earliest days.

The cemetery's oldest gravestone is that of Mabel Abbott, the wife of an early Indian agent. An early town pioneer, Abbott was buried in the cemetery in 1856. The earliest birth date listed on a tombstone is 1795.

There are 212 known veterans buried in the cemetery, but Johnston suspects many more could be interred there.

"Those are the ones we know of," she said. "In the early days, the town was so small that everybody knew everybody. There are tombstones that just have a first name. They knew who it was. Of course that's all been forgotten."

There are also a lot of former residents buried in unmarked graves, Johnston said. That number increased when the federal government started construction of the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in the days before World War II.

At that time, an unknown number of graves in the Stringtown cemetery were disinterred and reburied in unmarked graves in the De Soto cemetery. Johnston said she doesn't know the names of those reburied.

"If anyone has a listing, we would appreciate it," she said. "I've checked with the county and state. Nobody has a listing."

Sunflower's World War II boom times may have contributed to the number of forgotten and neglected tombstones in the cemetery. Johnston said she assumes families with no ties to De Soto buried love ones here during the plant's wartime peak employment. In the five decades since the war, the graves have been lost to family lore.

"Sometimes people buried babies here and moved on," Johnston said. "It's sad really."

Those wanting to contribute to the tombstone repair fund can call Johnston at 585-1477 or write her in care of the De Soto Cemetery Board, she said.

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