Today, June 3, marks an important milestone in the renewed life of the Old City Cemetery, for it was exactly 25 years ago that a disastrous “wind sheer” struck Lynchburg and did $12 million in damage throughout our community. We have certainly been reminded of the devastating effects of natural disasters a number of times since that date in 1993. In my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that this event would have been the catalyst for the rehabilitation of that historic cemetery into the beautiful, historic destination it is today where some 35,000 visitors come annually!
No question, it takes a while — to emotionally recover from the event, and then to work through the clean up and on to dreams of how to renew. My dreams as a relatively young wife and mother of teenage children, and working as a landscape designer of historic properties and private homes, certainly did NOT include being the original restoration chairman and first Director of the Cemetery.
Life throws curve balls, however, and that’s what had happened. The storm of 1993 finished off what was left of a very neglected graveyard which had been established in 1806. The first acre of land had been given by the city founder, John Lynch, but gradually grew, as the town grew, to include 26 acres and be the final resting place for almost 20,000 citizens. The entrance was at Fourth and Taylor Streets, but after the storm, the only access to the place was by foot. I gathered help from two men I knew who lived close by in the Tinbridge Hill neighborhood — Jimmy Preston and Frank Coles Together the three of us worked together for many months, cutting and dragging fallen debris to the main driveway so that, in time, the City trucks could come through and pick it up. The City had plenty of work to do helping the living during that period, so appropriately the cemetery dead were a lower priority!
Before the June 1993 storm, the four ladies who comprised the Southern Memorial Association (SMA), had been focusing all efforts on interpreting and beautifying the Confederate Section of the Old City Cemetery and it’s newly re-located Pest House Medical Museum and blossoming rose collection. It was because of the June 3 storm that the clean up efforts in the REST of the cemetery opened our eyes to the history of our city which had been buried there for almost two centuries. We (Mina Wood, Frances Kemper, Jessica Ward and I) enlisted the advice of a Community Advisory Board, and community sources of financial support. Word traveled and strangers volunteered to help. They brought so many skills to the effort, but the important part was that they had loved the Old City Cemetery for many years, had wanted to do something about it, but just needed a leader to direct them! I became, by default, that leader.
The only thing I knew about was gardening, but it was the advent of a 16 year old student at E. C. Glass High School, Ted Delaney, who taught all of us the newly discovered history of the place. Since the record of burials in the cemetery were very sparse and included only a small file box hidden in a closet in the Public Works building, Ted volunteered to help and was assigned the task of recording inscriptions on all those fallen tombstones, and to locate and record them on a hand-drawn map. This took him about two years, but was the beginning of our understanding of the rich African American history; of the history of early immigrants, mayors, and townspeople; of disease and pestilence; of the indigent buried in the many Potter’s Fields; of soldiers who served in every American conflict; and of the life and death of so many whose stories had never been told before. After graduating from the University of Virginia, Ted Delaney served the Cemetery as Archivist-Curator, and then Executive Director, until his recent appointment as Director of the Lynchburg Museum System and Chief of Public History in early 2018.
The evolution of the role of the City of Lynchburg in the rehabilitation is huge and so important to this story. Through many generations, the ladies of the Southern Memorial Association (they changed their name at least 12 times in over a century of history!) always worked with the City to be sure the Confederate Section was maintained, but it was the state of “benign neglect” in the rest of the larger cemetery that was NOT a focus of routine city maintenance. The Old City Cemetery continues to be owned and maintained by the City, but today they are a unique and exemplary grounds maintenance partner to the non-profit SMA community organization which, with their small, dedicated staff and Board of Directors, is responsible for interpretation and beautification of the cemetery.
The rest of the story since the storm of June 3, 1993, includes the multifaceted efforts of both the SMA and the City. The addition of the little museums (the Cemetery Center, The Hearse House, the Station House, the Bicentennial Chapel, and the Comfort House) on the site have all been accomplished through over $2 million in private and local foundation gifts. The responsibility for grounds and building maintenance rests with the City. The museums and the numerous regular tours and events tell various stories interpreting the life and times of those buried in the cemetery. The maturing beauty of the site with its nationally recognized antique roses, and it’s hundreds of recently planted trees, shrubs and bulbs from the 19th century and earlier, reflect a graveyard meaningful to the earlier era when families maintained their own plots and visited deceased loved ones on a regular basis.
How did all this happen? No question it was the outpouring of concern of Lynchburg citizens from all walks of life who simply loved the place and just wanted to help and be a part of it’s new history. From the Tinbridge Hill neighbors, to the volunteer gardeners and gravestone fixers, the Eagle Scout candidates, the individuals, organizations and businesses who gave their financial and important in-kind gifts, the goat keepers, the bee keepers, the architects and engineers, the actors and actresses and artists and cooks, the researchers and technicians, and endless others who all gave of their time and talents to make the place what it is today.
What a privilege it has been to know all these people, to reflect on their 25 years of collective efforts, and to try to say thank you again for what all of you did and gave to our City of Lynchburg. Im sure I speak for everyone as we welcome the new Executive Director of the Old City Cemetery, Denise McDonald, and pledge our continuing support as we begin the next quarter century of cemetery life together!