Neglected Dallas cemetery losing battle with nature

Oakland Cemetery

Credit: WFAA

Volunteers worked to clean up historic Oakland Cemetery in South Dallas.

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by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on October 29, 2012 at 11:05 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 25 at 9:57 PM

Oakland Cemetery

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DALLAS — When Dan Calhoun visits his family’s graves at Oakland Cemetery in South Dallas, he doesn’t carry flowers. Instead, the 62-year-old brings a rake and a hoe.

He must first reveal the tombstones of his grandparents before he can mourn.

“It really bothers me to see them disappear,” he said. “I just wanted to give them their names back.”

Without Calhoun's diligence, his grandparents’ graves would likely fade away — much like many of those nearby.

Across Oakland’s sprawling grounds, nature is swallowing thousands of tombstones and erasing a part of Dallas history.

“It’s a shame to just see them disappear under the undergrowth,” Calhoun said.

The private non-profit cemetery near Fair Park is horribly neglected. Once-grand monuments marking the graves of many of the city's most famous names are now barely visible.

Trees and brush have consumed memorials.

Tall grass hides fields of burial plots, their markers now buried.

No one knows exactly how many people are buried here, but estimates say it may be as many as 36,000.

Opened in 1890, Oakland Cemetery is the final resting place for many of Dallas’ founders. Familiar names such as Dealey, Ervay, Caruth, and Thornton can be found here.

Although the facility appears to be abandoned, its keepers insist it is anything but.

“The cemetery is woefully underfunded,” said its board president, Robert Reynolds. “We’re reversing that.”

Yet raising enough money to care for the 60-acre property has, so far, proved impossible. Reynolds said for unknown reasons, management quit selling burial plots in the 1980s.

Financial troubles followed. Bankruptcy has been declared at least once.

Many of the graves are so far removed from current generations, families quit donating for care — if they’re even aware they have loved ones here. Tracking down and approaching survivors for money has proved difficult.

Now, Oakland Cemtery's board can barely afford its lone groundskeeper, Harold Williams, who’s all but given up in the face of such an enormous task.

“I’m 58 years old,” Williams said at the end of a shift of hauling trash and clearing debris. “I can’t do this too much longer; I’m worn out.”

He lives on the property, and says he makes $35,000 a year working seven days a week doing what maintenance he can.

The massive cemetery covers the size of nearly 50 football fields, all tended to with equipment Williams said he must buy himself.

His lawnmower, he complained, recently broke down.

“I’m doing the best I can for one person,” he said.

When asked to share his personal thoughts about seeing so many graves neglected, Williams shrugged: “I may be Irish, but I can’t be melancholy all the time.”

Volunteers have tried to help. Several churches organized a massive cleanup effort on Saturday. Yet even with 400 people cutting, digging and clearing for hours, volunteers were only able to clear four acres of the 60-acre grounds.

“We got a lot of things done,” said Jack Meager, who coordinated the weekend effort, “but we still see there’s a great need to come out and work some more here.”

He hopes to bring volunteers back in a few months.

Meanwhile, the cemetery board will continue seeking out whatever donations it can find. And Dan Calhoun will continue clearing his grandparents’ graves himself, for as long as he can.

Who will take over the chore once he’s gone is a question that troubles him.

“As long as I’m alive, I don’t want to forget them," Calhoun said, choking back tears.

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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