The Renovation of Ebenezer Cemetery
By Shirley Lowe, Cherokee County Master Gardener
On May 1, 2023, as Caretaker and Historian of Ebenezer Cemetery, I led a plant education-oriented tour of the cemetery for a group of 17 people. The group consisted of my fellow Master Gardeners and Ebenezer Methodist church members. It was a lovely day and enthusiasm ran high as I told the stories of the cemetery – its history, the renovation, my involvement, then zeroed in on my horticultural learning experiences on this sacred spot of ground. I have been asked to write the story so it may be shared with others, so here it is!
First, the history: In 1853, eight years before the Civil War, Joseph Lamb donated two acres of land in Cherokee County, Georgia, for Ebenezer Methodist Church and Cemetery. During the 170 years since then, the church has likely been in three different locations. There are what appear to be very old cornerstones in the back, left side of the cemetery. These present the possibility that at one time the church sat in that area. If only those cornerstones could tell their story!
Sitting at the corner of GA Hwy 140 and Cox Road, the church and cemetery are now in Fulton County. Since their origin in Cherokee County, county lines have been re-drawn multiple times to have also placed them in Cobb and Milton Counties. The cemetery is not behind the present location of the church but is on the opposite side of Cox Road, facing Hwy 140. An athletic field owned by the city of Milton now separates them.
In 1852, M.G. Elkins was buried on the one-acre cemetery plot. This 14-year-old now has the honor of being the oldest marked grave. The second oldest stone is that of 63-year-old Amy Martin Brewer who, according to family legend succumbed to accidental poisoning in 1860. As the years wore on, a bit more acreage and 625+ burials were added. Some loved ones were simply swaddled in cloth and placed in unmarked graves. Perhaps they might have once had wooden markers. Other graves were marked with rocks pulled from the nearby stream that flows into the Little River. There are many granite stones and beautiful pink or white marble stones, some with intricate carvings of lilies, lambs, clasped hands, “life cut short” tree stumps, and mourning drapes.
Family members maintained the grounds. It was a close-knit community, and it is understandable that names in the cemetery would later appear as names of local roads such as Chaffin, Cox, King, Lackey, Etris, Earley, Rucker, Lum Crow, and Ebenezer. Many years ago when times became tough for Ebenezer Methodist Church and membership dwindled, the ownership of the cemetery fell into hands of other individuals. Fast forward to 2018. The ageing Mr. Ralph Dangar, no longer able to properly take care of the cemetery, deeded ownership to the church. His daughter passed along history and photos of their many ancestors in the cemetery. Work was begun to bring the cemetery back into better condition. Pastor Glenn Hannigan opined that “Our name is on it; we need to take care of it!” A small group from the church worked towards this goal. Due to the uncertainty of precise burial locations, ground penetrating radar was performed by Omega Mapping Company in 2019. The mapping project was headed by Jennifer Scholten and Penni Evans. Surprisingly, 95 burials that were either unmarked or marked with a rock were identified! A map was created. The names of these souls are unknown, though in some cases, due to the surrounding graves the surname would probably be an easy guess. Through research of old obits and death certificates, 20 residents have been identified, though their location is unknown. Anyone now visiting the cemetery can check the map and locate a particular grave within minutes.
In hindsight, I would term my own involvement with the cemetery “divine providence!” Despite living in Cherokee Co. for 35 years and having passed Ebenezer Church and Cemetery thousands of times, I never paid much attention to it, other than always admiring the pretty little white church on the corner. One day in February 2018, while sitting at one of the busiest intersections in the area, I happened to notice the dead trees and overgrown debris in the cemetery. I spotted the sign with a phone number for donations. At this point I had been retired 5 years and had been a Cherokee Co. Master Gardener for 10 years. I had spent the same amount of time volunteering at the antebellum Roswell landmark, Barrington Hall, learning much about historic gardens. Genealogy had been a passion for more than 20 years, so I was tuned in to such sites. I impulsively veered into the cemetery to explore and take photos. Those photos are now my “before” photos!
For a while, it had been on my heart that I would like to find a church home once again. I had grown up in Baptist churches in Laurel, MS, but in the 30+ years I had been in Woodstock, I had not explored the possibility of re-establishing a church home. On Easter in 2018, still thinking about that cemetery, I decided to attend Ebenezer Methodist Church. In the back of my mind was the thought that I might meet the person in charge of the cemetery. I did not mention this to any of the nice people who welcomed me. I was unaware that at that time the church did not own the cemetery. I loved the down-home friendliness of the congregation and the fact that the spirit-filled worship in the old sanctuary was like stepping back 50+ years to the churches of my past. I continued to attend for about 6 weeks. I began to consider joining the church, but uncertainty held me back. One Sunday, Bill Humphrey stood up from the pew behind me and made the announcement that the church was being deeded the cemetery by Mr. Dangar. Bill said if anyone wanted to help work in the cemetery, they should contact Jennifer Scholten. As a cold chill ran down my spine, I turned to Bill and whispered that I would help! I soon joined the church and began attending meetings to help with the genealogy. It wasn’t long before I checked out the headstones.
Eventually, when Jennifer and Penni moved on to other church jobs, I was asked to take over the cemetery. Two other church members, Gene Jernigan and Bill Humphrey, are on the cemetery committee and have been great cemetery partners for me. My husband has also been very supportive and occasionally comes to help when strong arms are needed! At this point I do all kinds of jobs, from selling plots and managing burials to pulling weeds and adding plantings at my own whim. No one has complained about the beautification process! My original intent had been to just assist in the clean-up, but I was fascinated and drawn in deeper and deeper by many questions in my mind, formed as I worked around the cemetery by day. With great excitement, I uncovered several buried stones. At night I would dig into their histories by doing searches on ancestry.com. I found some stunning obits, newspaper stories, and death certificates. There were so many mysteries! Occasionally I discovered things that hurt my heart and weighed on my mind all day. That is the nature of cemetery work. Life, and death, become very real when all else is stripped away. It occurred to me recently that I have been placed in a position to work with people who are experiencing the worst days of their lives as they go through the loss of a loved one. I cannot boast of any special skills for this but am honored to help in any way.
As I work in the cemetery, I introduce myself to visitors, so I’ve been privy to reminisces about their relatives and where they lived, old church history, and the local legends such as the Goodwin twins, Lum Crow, the Chadwick family from the old hardware store, and more! To preserve the history, I have written individual stories of many of these meetings. The cemetery now has its own website and has also been fully updated with memorials on findagrave.com. Check out https://ebzcsa.org to view the map, many photos taken during the renovation process, and of course the flowers!
Church members and resident’s families have been very supportive of renovations and have stepped in to work in the cemetery and make donations to help with expenses. The cemetery is now able to support itself. Plots are still available. Our goal from the beginning was that even though we are not in the cemetery business for profit, we want it to support itself as a business. At the same time, we reserve space for indigent burials when needed. My personal goal has been to bring beauty and attention to the cemetery so that it will be a vehicle of outreach for the church, and that all be done for the glory of God! Honoring these people and respectfully preserving memorials for them is of the utmost importance.
Here are some of the many renovations and repairs to the cemetery. At the time of some of these needed repairs, I didn’t know how to accomplish it or how it would physically get done, but a path would open, and it was completed!
· Replaced the old chain link fence with a wooden fence.
· With ground penetrating radar, marked the unknown 95 graves.
· Removed the unsightly piles of dirt at the back of the cemetery.
· Filled in sunken graves. Added new gravel to many plots.
· Pressure washed, repaired, and painted plot walls.
· Restored a dozen broken headstones from the years of 1880-1920
· Worked with an Eagle Scout, Mario Jimenez, to create the map kiosk.
· Organized workdays for headstone cleaning; always using conservation-approved methods.
· Established the Roadside Bed and Scatter Garden with funds awarded from a Georgia Master
Gardeners grant awarded in 2020.
· Established garden areas and/or plantings on graves to offer beautification. Except for the
GMGA grant, most plants were either donations from individuals or shared from my own gardens.
· Provided many tours for garden clubs, members of the church or community, Cherokee Co.
Master Gardeners, potential plot purchasers, resident’s relatives, etc.
· Honoring our 56 veterans with three large flags and small flags at each grave (all
· Obtained an EXCELLENT lawn crew who mow on a regular basis.
· Irrigation was donated by church member, Craig Crouch of Aquatron Irrigation.
· Added a frost-free water faucet in the cemetery, plus electricity to the map kiosk.
· Placed a large boulder on the left side of cemetery to eliminate the “U-turn problem”
on graves! Added the Entrance Bed on the right side.
· Updated findagrave.com with memorials and obituaries; Established website and Facebook
page. Added hundreds of grave photos!
· The Cemetery Committee established Rules & Regs, Purchase Contracts, and
· Beautified three old, abandoned plots of unknown ownership, and re-purposed them for cremation
For the Master Gardener’s tour, I promised some tips on things learned in the gardens. It was a struggle when I first began the planting as there was no hydrant in the cemetery. To water the plants, I would bring water from home in kitty litter buckets! For that reason, I looked for hardy plants such as iris, yarrow, salvia, rudbeckia, sedums, day lilies, and daffodils that would do well in a dry environment. These are true passalong plants and most are of the historic period. As an experiment, I planted Autumn Glow Sedum in some of the abandoned marble urns that were on very old graves – ones that no longer received the benefit of flowers from loved ones. To my amazement, they did well! I have since added other kinds of sedums to urns and lots of nooks and crannies in the cemetery.
Sedum, ferns, hostas, Ebony Spleenwort, Cardinal Flower, green and gold, phacelia, oakleaf hydrangeas, and hellebores have been added to shaded areas near the worn old cinder blocks. Native plants are used when they are available. It created pretty vignettes in the mossy areas that were once merely a row of tumbled down and unattractive concrete blocks. I had the epiphany that the cemetery didn’t need to be renovated to the point of adding lots of new walls, the old ones just needed to be enhanced and given a “loved” look! I’ve often stated that the cemetery is 170 years old and has been pieced together like an old patchwork quilt!
The former home of Mr. Billy Holcomb, a.k.a. “the tomato man,” became the construction site for a new church fellowship building behind the church, on Cox Road. The yard was the source of the rescue of hundreds of daffodils, a few roses, some incredible camellias, boxwoods, azaleas, hydrangeas, and more. The beautifully wooded area behind the house had a pretty stream with various ferns, native azaleas, and wonderful rocks! I adore daffodils and would sometimes spend 15 minutes tenderly coaxing delicate bulbs from an entanglement of tree roots! A few other church members and I rescued as much as possible off the property and replanted most of it in the churchyard and cemetery. The daffodils were one of the main attractions. I discovered that for the best result while moving daffodils in the spring, (rather than the recommended fall planting) timing was everything. The same was true for many of the other plants. A carefully timed rescue dig on the morning of, or the day before, rain made all the difference in the success of the transplant. Bulbs would be dug with soil when possible and transferred in buckets or grocery store bags. Quickly replanting them might result in the reward of blooms that same season. Rain and quick replanting made all the difference. Even though this is not the recommended way to move daffodils, it worked very well and provides the opportunity to plant them when other the foliage of other daffodil bulbs marks their location.
As Master Gardeners, one of our mantras taught from the first day of training is “right plant, right place!” Learning to pay closer attention to the lay of the land was an important lesson in the cemetery. It is obvious that the property slants downward towards the back fence. However, I learned, at the sacrifice of a dogwood tree, that because of the slant, the lower part of the cemetery, especially in the left shaded corner of the back fence, retains much more moisture than other areas. My forensic autopsy on the dogwood revealed that the roots had rotted! Now there are Louisiana irises in that area. They love the moist area and will be eyecatchers from the road. The second confirmation of this lesson came after we spent a lot of time placing wood chips in the back of the cemetery. It is important to keep an open space around the cemetery so that equipment will have access for burials. The area looked beautiful after the installation of the new chips. During the next big rain it became a river! Yes, I can now vouch that wood chips float! Though it is not nearly as attractive, the area is now used as one giant compost area. Along with mown leaves, yard debris is chopped up in small pieces and it eventually breaks down to become mulch.
The most recent lesson in the cemetery resulted in a joke on myself. I planted one of the previously mentioned roses from the Holcomb property to the right of the front entrance, hoping that it would put on a pretty display for passing drivers. This spring I thought it might be fun to attempt to espalier it against the fence. I spent all afternoon placing screw eyes in the fence and carefully manicuring the rose to the desired shape. In a few weeks I was delighted when white roses appeared. I thought it was a white Lady Banks rose and felt smug about the whole project. Later that week, I noticed similar white roses began to appear in the woods alongside the county roads. With a sinking feeling, I researched Georgia native plants and discovered that the rose was Multiflora, an invasive non-native! It was recommended that I remove it. Horrors! On the other hand, the rose is still pretty and will provide an interesting focal point to the entrance, especially in the spring. For now, I will cut the seeds off and keep close tabs on it. I guess you could say I “created a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!”
Of interesting note is the visit paid to the cemetery by Marcia Winchester, my Cherokee Co. Master Gardener friend who as I often say, “knows everything!” She was no more than a few steps from her Jeep when she exclaimed “You have ground orchids!” She went on to explain that the Spiranthes or Ladies Tresses have been continually mowed so they have never developed or flowered. I have since transferred many of them to more desirable areas in the cemetery and hope to save more of these unusual spiraling, white flowers. I have since also discovered Blue Eyed Grass in the lawn and have saved many of these native plants. Lesson learned: Watch where you are walking, particularly when you are on old property, as you never know what you might discover!
As I close this story of my work in the cemetery, I reiterate that I am humbled and honored to work on this sacred property. While I know that God led me to Ebenezer for a purpose, and one might think it was simply to beautify the property, I know that there are more far-reaching ramifications than the pretty flowers in the cemetery! The experience has offered friendships, life fulfilling enrichment, and the blossoming of my own spirituality! I have been amazingly blessed.