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I am not a bumper sticker person, but if I were, mine might read, “I dig cemeteries.” Not to be irreverent, I explore old graveyards to unearth facts not easily found in travel brochures. I don’t have a macabre personality, but rather, a keen interest in history and the people who lived it. I seek out old cemeteries because they resurrect clues about a town’s roots, if I take the time to stop and explore them.
I set out to explore East Hill Cemetery in Palestine, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas in the Piney Woods region. East Hill is actually a conglomeration of resting places comprising the original East Hill, Old City, New Addition, New Addition Annex and Middle Cemeteries. Nearby is Old Town, an area of downtown businesses housed in older structures—some wood, others brick and several with rusted, streaked tin roofs.
I begin my cemetery exploration early to avoid the heat and to capture the best light for pictures. I wear long pants and closed-toe shoes, not knowing the condition of the grounds. As it turns out, oaks, skyward crape myrtles, dogwoods (a local favorite) and cedars canopy roughly half of East Hill. Grasses cover the ground, along with patches of weeds and the occasional renegade vine. Even the Old City section, while flat and less coiffed, is minimally maintained.
I walk east to west. In most cemeteries, headstones face east, harking back to the earliest New England settlers, buried so that they might rise on the “new day”—facing the sun—at the time of Christ’s return. Throughout my walk, I carefully dodge old gravesites because the ground may be soft. Although portions of East Hill Cemetery are still in use, burials in the Old City section date back to the 1850s. I take nothing except pictures and notes, and leave nothing behind, save footprints. From years of cemetery traipsing, I have learned that “rubbing” headstones erodes inscriptions, which to me equates to erasing history.
As I walk, I note an increase in burials in the late 19th century, leading me to believe that the town experienced a boom around this time. Sure enough, when I investigate this hunch later on, I learn that a railroad came to Palestine in the 1870s and a new depot and more development followed in the 1890s.
But more happened than a population increase, as evidenced by the extraordinary number of Woodmen of the World (W.O.W.) and Masonic emblems etched into East Hill headstones. Palestine became a community. Although Woodmen of the World is known for selling life insurance, it began as a fraternal organization that helped widows; plus, it encouraged members to participate in other charitable efforts. In W.O.W.’s early years, it provided stone markers free—usually shaped like a tree stump with a wedge and an ax. Sometime before 1920, it offered a $100 insurance rider for a marker’s cost, but ultimately, did away with the rider altogether.
The Masons also figured prominently in settling Palestine and Texas. On the way to East Hill, I had passed Palestine’s historic Masonic Lodge No. 31. In fact, the Masons occupied 80 percent of political offices during the Republic of Texas era, while representing roughly 1.5 percent of the population. Their prominence may have stemmed from the fact that Masons, such as Stephen F. Austin, were among the first to migrate to Texas in the 1820s.
It doesn’t take me long to realize that East Hill accommodates some interesting residents.
John H. Reagan (d. 1906) served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1857 to 1861. During the Civil War, he assumed the office of Confederate Postmaster General and later served as a U.S. senator from Texas.
Then there’s Alexander White Gregg (d. 1919), U.S. representative from Texas from 1903 to 1919. Most notable is the memorial of Texas Gov. Thomas Mitchell Campbell (d. 1923), who served from 1907 to 1911. An impressive, towering obelisk marks the resting place of only the second Texas native to occupy the governor’s office.
I encountered the markers for veterans of the Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In East Hill and the Palestine area, tablet-shaped Civil War markers, inscribed “CSA” (Confederate States of America) provide clear evidence that this region of Texas had deep ties to its Southern neighbors in the mid to late 1800s.
As I survey this cemetery, I recall how the original Texas immigrants came here from all over. Headstones note the roots of residents born in Scotland, Sweden, India, Mexico, Germany and England. On the back of one headstone, I find an inscription in what looks like Arabic.
In the Old City section, prominent families erected iron fencing, shipped from Detroit and Cincinnati, according to branding on the metalwork. Was W.A. Underwood—whose signature appears on one stone—the craftsman commissioned to carve intricate pastoral scenes onto the many children’s tombstones? Many infant and child markers appear in East Hill before the 1930s, likely due to the lack of prenatal care and vaccinations for common childhood diseases.
Most tombstones record a name, a birth date and a date of death. But a few hold clues about the deceased’s life for future generations to discover.
In East Hill, there’s “Pap” (d. 1900), said to be “Everyone’s Friend.” The headstone of Eleanor Beatrice Caldwell (d. 1893) proclaims, “Being dead she yet speaketh.” Esther Equi Hearne’s headstone (d. 2004) urges, “Let the good times roll.” Good advice from a woman who lived to be 102.
As East Hill disappears in my rear view mirror, I savor Esther’s advice. I know more about her and Palestine than when I started, but new questions about its past lives linger.
Ramona Reeves is a freelance and fiction writer who lives in Austin.