A couple of weeks ago I received notice through Facebook that the Laurens County Museum would be holding tours of the old Laurens City Cemetery. Glynda and I had visited several weeks ago, and I thought this would be an excellent follow-up, and possibly answer some of the questions we had generated on our trip. I figured that this might also be a good opportunity to get some audio for my upcoming podcast on cemeteries.
Prior to the tour I contacted Bill Cooper, who is chair of the Laurens City Cemetery Committee. Bill works at the local library. He’s also an organist, and would fill in occasionally for me when my organist at First Presbyterian in Laurens was absent. Bill would be conducting part of the tour, and was willing to contribute to the podcast.
The appointed time arrived, and I headed on down. I pulled into the park behind the cemetery, along the riverside. Funeral home canopies (appropriately enough) from Kennedy Mortuary had been set up, and hosts had brochures and sign in sheets, as well as cookies and water. I could see that there were already people gathering, and a tour was underway.
I walked up to the upper entrance on North Harper Street, which seemed to be the main entrance for the event. My friend Mary Ellen Lives from the museum was there, along with Elaine Martin from the library.
“When these cemeteries were created there were a lot of the ‘newly dead’ in them, so you would have family members that would come out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, bring a picnic and some scrub brushes, and they would keep these plots maintained. But, so many of those family members have died off so there’s nobody actually doing the family maintenance.”
Mary Ellen told me that Bill Cooper was already off leading a tour, but would be back shortly. I took the opportunity to talk with Martin Meeks, who has done some conservation work with the Magnolia Cemetery. Martin described their work with students at Wofford on cemetery conservation, and the problems with maintaining a cemetery once the family members had died out. They were try to get folks to adopt a plot of the cemetery to do maintenance.
Martin provided me with some other information about conservation work, including a description of the constant battle with lichens. The porous stone allows the lichens to take hold. However, it likes some stone better than others, and it’s not understood why it grows in some places, and not others.
As we talked I could see many stones that suffered from that scourge. I mentioned the stones we saw down at Lower Long Cane ARP that were nearly illegible. The problem is that you don’t want to use anything to abrasive, and you certainly don’t want to use harsh chemicals that might cause even more deterioration over time.
Martin was kind enough to let me record his comments for the podcast, although, for some reason, I didn’t get a photo of him. I think I was too busy with the audio.
Bill soon returned. We chatted a bit, and he reminded me that he had taken piano lessons from my mother long ago…the small town syndrome where everyone knows everyone, even if you haven’t lived there in ages. One other woman joined us, and it looked like it was going to be a very small tour group. People were there – they were just doing self-guided tours using the brochures. I put a lapel mic and recorder on Bill and the tour got underway. One or two others wandered in and out of our group as we got started.
The brochure had several number locations of notable headstones. These included the “Little Earl” statue, the grave of a former governor, and other prominent people in the town. As we walked among the headstones it became apparent why Bill was chair of the cemetery committee. He’s related to half the people buried here.
Several stones had toppled. Bill said that some of these had come down in the freak earthquake they had here a year or so ago. Other have fallen because of shifting ground, falling limbs, and just plain vandalism. Overall, though, the cemetery was in very good shape.
Bill mentioned that burials are still taking place in the cemetery. Most of the newer stones were on the south side of cemetery, with the oldest being closer to the top of the hill.
The oldest grave no longer has a stone. It is the grave of a young girl who died tragically after she was bitten by a rabid dog.
Next to her headstone was a signature stone, one that caused me some confusion. The stone had W. T. White’s name at the bottom of it. However, the person died in 1833, long before the W. T. White I know about was active as a stone carver. So, either there was another W. T. White carving stones, or this one was a replacement stone carved by White much later. Adding to the confusion, the stone itself looks of the right vintage and design for 1833.
Eventually we made our way over to the mysterious “glowing tombstone.” The stone was part of the Morgan family plot down next to the river, and close to the old Lavonne Shopping Center. At the time there was an A&P Grocery Store, Pete’s #9 Drive-In, and several other major businesses very close by.
A descendant of the Morgan family was present at the tour, and made a follow-up comment on Facebook.
The head stone glowed back in late 68, I’m told not sure of the year…still looking these facts up but where it is at is where all my relatives are buried, my great grandfather, my great uncle, my grandfather, two uncles, great aunt and my dad. The stone glowed at night and they never knew why. They thought the traffic light or the shopping store lights, so they cut off all power in the city of Laurens and it still glowed. So, they decided to turn the head stone to stop the glow. They say it might have been the granite. I really don’t know, but if you look around the cemetery it is the only one in the lower part of the grave yard that has the family name facing N Harper St. towards KFC, except for the one that has the name on both sides and it has been turned that way as long as I can remember. Hope this helps and no the stone doesn’t glow now
Margaret Morgan Tucker on Facebook
Bill continued his tour on around the lower access road. Evenutally we came to the other prominent piece of sculpture in the cemetery, and one that had caused me no small amount of puzzlement on my previous visit.
The tomb is that of W. J. Copeland. On our previous visit I wondered who he was, and why he might have merited such an elaborate monument. I couldn’t find any record of him online. When I spoke with Mary Ellen at the beginning of the tour she said that Copeland had ordered the statue from Italy prior to his death, and that this action cause no small amount of discord amongst his family. It was seen as “vainglorious”, as she put it.
Bill didn’t go into those controversies on his tour, but he did reveal something interesting. W. J Copeland is his great-great grandfather. I asked Bill what Copeland did for a living, and he said that he was just a landowner and farmer.
When we walked past a late teens young man had climbed up onto the base of the statue and was posing next to it. I was a bit worried that damage might be done. The kid looked like the time to show disrespect to a cemetery. I didn’t take any photos, but should have.
Eventually we made our way back to the entrance, and found ourselves in another mystery. Someone had spotted some unusual items on a grave, so several of us wandered down to inspect. The grave was of a Navy veteran, and an odd memorial had been constructed over it consisting of an MRE package, a makeshift wire tripod, a dust mask, an O-ring, and some other strange bauble.
Since we were close to the entrance near my car, and decided not to walk back up the hill, but take my leave. The cemetery still held some mysteries, though. Just below what looks like the official boundary of the cemetery, almost on the park land, there were several graves, some fairly recent. I recognized a couple of prominent African American surnames from the town, and wondered if this was a portion of the cemetery that had once been segregated.
The brochure lists this as “Section Six,” and says that it’s part of an expansion of the cemetery’s borders down to the river in the early 1900s. It has a distinctly different look and feel from the rest of the cemetery.
The tour turned out to be very interesting, and it looks like lots of people stopped by. My thanks to Mary Ellen Lives, Bill Cooper, and Martin Meeks for letting me take photos and make audio recordings, and to the rest of the Laurens Museum folks for putting on this event.