by hilary johnson
There is no better way to catalog the history of a place than through a graveyard. Each tombstone represents a different story, a different part of the history, and through their lives, the deceased weave together what once was.
But there is something about cemeteries in October that seems especially ghoulish. Suddenly, all those lives seem to want to come out, ready for all hallow’s eve, ready for the party.
Evergreen Cemetery, Jacksonville’s oldest cemetery founded in 1880, is the perfect place to reflect on all the things graveyards seem to represent. There is a chill in the air; be it a cool breeze or a ghoulish daunt.
Pretty much any cemetery would be considered creepy, to a degree. One can not avoid the immediate thought of “This is where dead people live,” running through their minds when they enter one. There is something about the idea that just six feet below are decades and decades of stories, of lives, of lives lost that are now buried beneath us for safe keeping.
But Evergreen has a leg up on its competitors. Its 167 acre lot is a resting place for over 70,000 deceased, covering a massive expanse of historic Springfield in downtown Jacksonville. To get there one must drive through a part of town that some might consider neglected, others might consider refurbishable, but its an old site that is not for sore eyes.
However, when you pull up to the massive cemetery you are greeted by brick walls and a cast iron fence. The words “Evergreen Cemetery” stretch across the top, ominous and forlorn at what rests inside. A huge mausoleum and crematory loom overhead in the distance, a fresh reminder of who comes here to visit, and who comes to stay.
The grounds are gorgeously maintained. The narrow roads are swept. A quaint brick house has been turned into the office. And the area has been carefully landscaped. It’s charming. The air smells fresh and it is relatively quiet. The sound of mosquitos can be heard, probably eager for fresh blood, providing the cemetery with its very own vampirish effect.
But, the further one ventures into Evergreen, the lusher the landscape becomes. Bugs come out in full force. Shallow ravines to a creek are overgrown and tangled. Tombstones are faded and molded, sometimes crooked, showing their age.
Evergreen’s tombstones are what really tell the story of Jacksonville’s intricate and interesting past. On April 8th, 1881, the cemetery’s first burial took place for Mrs. Margaret Jamison. Isaiah D. Hart, the founder of Jacksonville, is buried in Evergreen. Sarah Hogan is buried there, whose tombstone boasts her as the first white child to be born in Jacksonville, back when it was called “Cow Ford.” Numerous United States Senators are buried there, as well as a number of Florida’s previous Governors. Rev. Robert James Bateman, a passenger of the Titanic, is buried in Evergreen. Rev. Bateman died during the tragic sinking and was survived by his siblings that were also on board, who would later come to rest in Evergreen as well.
The acres were purchased by a group of seven gentleman of the city for a measly $25 an acre. The Jacksonville-Fernandina Railroad runs through the middle of the grounds with a depot in order to provide convenient access to visitors back in 1880. A horse, cart and cap were purchased and used to carry visitors through the grounds.
The cemetery is divided into numerous sections. There is St. Mary’s Catholic section that is situated near the entrance of the cemetery, and holds some of the cemeteries oldest plots. There are numerous Jewish areas, the Ahavath Chesed section and the Beth Shalom Congregation among them. One section of the cemetery holds those who passed during the Yellow Fever epidemic that struck Jacksonville in 1885.
Many veterans are buried in Evergreen as well. Spanish American War Veterans are buried throughout the grounds. C.S.A Confederate Veterans are buried there, as well as some United Daughters of the Confederacy.
On Sunday, October 28, 2007, the Evergreen Cemetery Association is sponsoring the Pumpkin Run, a 10 mile and 5K run through the cemeteries grounds. The run begins at 8:00 AM. Prize money will be awarded to the top three men and women in each age group for the ten mile run, with first place taking home $200. Each participant will receive a T-shirt. This will be the perfect opportunity for people to promote life and health, while appreciating the lives of Jacksonville’s past.
Evergreen Cemetery is an integral part of Jacksonville’s history. Walking through the grounds, one can almost feel the presence of decades past, stories of its residents quietly whispered through the blown tree branches and the humming of mosquitoes. The stories surround you and continue to add to this interactive history book of what Jacksonville once was, and what it will become.