You’ve probably seen one before; perhaps you stumbled upon it while walking through the woods or noticed another while driving down a two-lane road: small groupings of old tombstones that seem to dot the landscape, offering a glimpse into communities that have long since passed. Sadly, many of these cemeteries are unmarked, overgrown and at risk of being forgotten if they have not been already. However, all of that can change with a little help from the community.
Help from the community is exactly what T. Bradford Willis, DDS, is seeking for one cemetery in particular: Martin Cemetery, located in the woods on Martin Church Road in Upson County. Willis is from Waco, Texas, however many of his ancestors, the Martin, Howell, Middlebrook(s), Willis, Selman, and Smith families, were pioneers of Upson County and it is through learning about them that he came to find the old cemetery where some of his relatives are buried.
“My first visit to Thomaston and Upson County was in the mid 1970s when my relatives, James Anthony “Pete” Vining and Edna Vining, showed me the homes, cemeteries, and churches connected with my family,” said Willis. “On this trip I first visited the historic Martin Cemetery on Martin Church Road. There was no cemetery sign, no fence, and the entire cemetery was overgrown with grass, brush, and trees. It was in sad shape and I felt it was at risk at disappearing from the view and knowledge of residents.”
In hopes of keeping that from happening, over the years, Willis has come to find out some information on those buried in the cemetery, and has begun documenting it on www.findagrave.com, but is hoping through help from those in the area he can learn more. He believes the Martin Cemetery was first a community cemetery before being associated with the Martin Methodist Church that used to be located on the property in the early 20th century. The earliest grave marker in the cemetery predates the church’s history and is for Smitha Jane Howell Stallings who died in 1854. She was a daughter of Burwell and Elizabeth Howell, who are his direct ancestors.
The cemetery is made up of about 60 tombstones and lots of unmarked graves. Through his research and that of the Upson Historical Society, Willis thinks some may have had grave markers years ago that have deteriorated over time. Records show that a number of Civil War veterans are buried there, but only about seven or eight of them have tombstones. Willis added that through the work of Grady Kelley and Claude Burgess, who were documenting the veterans who were buried on the property for the Upson Historical Society and the Thomaston-Upson Archives, the names of those veterans have been recorded.
“We know that B. F. Brinkley, Henry Dean, Arthur Farr, James M. Howell, James Myrick Howell, Jesse B. Howell, J. C. Page, William Slaughter, George M. Smith, and Benjamin F. Watson are buried there and most of them have grave markers,” said Willis. “There may well be others there. As you know sometimes a field stone or a rose bush might be used to mark a grave of a loved one.”
The tombstones that are still standing are very fragile and at risk of being lost as well since many of them are from the late 1800s and Willis is hoping there are others with information on those who are buried there, so the information will not be lost forever.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Professor J. C. Henry and says ‘We study the past not predict the future, but to understand the present.’ If you know what happened in the past, it gives you a better understanding of why people do what they do today. That is why I want to find the stories that have never been recorded.”
Willis recently had a sign placed on the property distinguishing the property as Martin Cemetery, as it is located in the middle of the woods on Martin Church Road. He asks that anyone with information on people who are buried there, or anyone interested in finding out more information, to contact either him or the Upson Historical Society. To contact Willis, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Biles can be reached by calling 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @AshleyBiles1