The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

September 12, 2013

Landowner restores forgotten cemetery

Reviving history

By Karen Middleton
news@athensnews-courier.com

CLEMENTS — When Ty Smith, a chicken and cattle farmer with an operation off Holt Springer Road, wanted to add 40 acres to his spread, he purchased land from Wade and Dwight Garner.

Little did he know he was getting a cemetery in the deal.

Shortly after the purchase, Smith said he got a call from Wade Garner telling him of the small, abandoned cemetery in a thicket of trees in brush. He asked Smith if it was all right if he went in and cleared the overgrowth away and restored the cemetery.

And so the project to restore what was eventually to be known as Thompson Cemetery began last year.

Smith said he, his father, Ross Smith, and the Garner brothers used a bulldozer and chain saws to get to the cemetery.

“We found four graves marked with rocks and one original marker,” said Smith.

He said the four graves marked at the head and foot by common fieldstones contained no names and had sunken.

“A huge cedar tree had fallen on a tombstone,” said Smith. “My father cut up the tree and made cedar crosses for the unmarked graves.”

Family means everything to Smith, who built his spacious, modern home beside the old family place where Cotton Smith raised his brood of children. Today, the descendants of Cotton Smith live throughout this community, including Smith’s father, Ross Smith, a former agriculture teacher.

Ty Smith, who is the newest member of the Limestone County Water and Sewer Authority, named the road going back to his chicken houses after his grandfather — Cotton Hill Road.

Wade Garner said his father, Erdie Garner, purchased the property on which the cemetery is located in about 1960.

“We knew ever since then that there was a cemetery located there,” said Garner. “Of course, I was just a kid then and had no interest in cleaning it off. A couple of times we made a stab at cleaning it and a time or two there would be some other folks come in there and clean out a little of the brush.

“But then, there got to be just so much stuff there — big trees.”

Smith hired Garner and his bulldozer to clear some land to erect a fence because he wanted to pasture cattle there. Garner asked Smith if while he was there clearing for the fence, he could clear out the cemetery.

“I just wanted to see it cleaned off,” said Garner. “I guess you could say it became a labor of love.”

Garner said he and his brother, Dwight, probed the site and detected six burial sites. Smith’s next stop was the Limestone County Archives, where he was able to unearth records for a Thompson Cemetery No. 1 on that site.

“I’m on Facebook and I posted some pictures of the cemetery and a friend of mine who lives in Las Vegas and who is really into genealogy saw them and asked me if I wanted her to trace the descendants,” said Smith.

That search led to Ross Thompson, 80, of Satellite Beach, Fla.

“I called Mr. Thompson and his wife answered the phone,” said Smith. “I told her about the project and she said, ‘Lord, he’s going to love hearing about you.’”

Thompson was aware of the cemetery and can trace his ancestry to three families — Ragsdales, Hudsons and Rays — who came to Limestone County from Emporia, Va., in the early 19th century and laid claim from the government to 400 acres each in what is now the Clements community.

Ed and Obedience Hudson Ragsdale were childless, however the son of some acquaintances named Thompson died of typhoid fever, leaving two children orphaned.

One of those children was George G. Thompson, whom the Ragsdales raised as their own. George Thompson later married Harriet Ray, a member of the Ray family who came to Limestone County with the Ragsdales. Ten children were born of their union.

One of their sons, George Robert Thompson, became the father of Ross E.G. Thompson, who became the father of the current Ross Thompson Jr., who lives in Florida.

Ross Thompson said he repeatedly sought financial help from the state of Alabama for the restoration of historical cemeteries only to find that those funds were exhausted. He also could not find anyone to hire to go in and clean off the cemetery.

Thompson came to Limestone County in the 1970s, found the cemetery, made an attempt to clean it off and while here he placed a stone with the names of the six people buried there, although it was impossible to determine in which specific graves each was buried.

One of the names left off the marker Thompson erected was that of George G. Thompson, a Civil War veteran, who was interred in the Hudson Family Cemetery, just off U.S. 72.

George G. Thompson’s sister, Cassandra Thompson, a spinster, purchased her own stone before her death, wanting to make sure her gravesite did not go unmarked. She died in 1930 and is believed to have been the last burial in the Thompson Family Cemetery.

“When I called Mr. Thompson and told him what we were doing, he thanked me over and over again and a few days later I received a check for $500 from him,” said Smith. “That was so unnecessary, but I took the money and had a sign made and put down some sod around the graves.”

Smith had also found a company in Indiana on the Internet that dealt with antique fences. He purchased enough to surround the cemetery so his cattle would not trample on the graves.

Thompson can trace ancestors from all three of the families who came from Virginia, and like Smith, he has roots that go deeply into Limestone and Lauderdale counties.

“I’ve got a bunch of double cousins up there,” he said.

“Every time I talk to Mr. Thompson I get all teary-eyed because he is so appreciative,” said Smith. “I told him that he could be rest assured that during my lifetime his people will be taken care of.”