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Volunteer tends old cemeteries

03/01/04

WALTER BRYANT
News staff writer
 

When Bill Tubbs visited rural cemeteries in Walker, Winston and Marion counties where his ancestors are buried, he was disturbed by what he saw.

"I was ashamed of them," he said. That was more than 20 years ago, when the abandoned cemeteries needed a caretaker, somebody who would honor the memory of those buried there in the 1800s. Tubbs decided to become that caretaker.

He tends a half dozen cemeteries where personal ties still reach out to him. "I've got one or two people buried in every one of them," said the 72-year-old resident of the Curry community in northern Walker County, who has had a lifelong interest in genealogy.

On a rainy day last week, Tubbs strolled through Camp Ground Cemetery, also known as Camp Meeting Cemetery, sizing up what needed to be done in a wooded knoll overlooking Musgrove Country Club, a few miles north of Jasper.

He scraped dead leaves away from a few markers and pondered when the ground would be dry enough for him to return with his riding mower. Pausing at one upright marker, he tugged away vines obscuring almost everything except a Masonic emblem carved into the face of the weathered stone.

"Ouch, that feels like briars," he said, drawing back his ungloved hand.

It's hard work. Some graveyards are difficult to reach. Even a pickup truck can get stuck in the mud.

As good as possible:

But Tubbs, aided by his wife Sue and a few helpers, see that the cemeteries look as good as possible. They visit each at least three times a year. They cut up fallen trees with a chain saw. They upright knocked over tombstones - likely the work of vandals. Leaves are raked away from markers and weeds are mowed.

In some cemeteries the pine trees outnumber the graves, with young trees growing up between markers.

Several of the cemeteries have more unmarked graves than those with nicely carved tombstones. Here and there a simple piece of sandstone pokes up through the leaves to indicate a grave. Markers were a luxury for families of modest means, Tubbs said. And if relatives couldn't read or write, a fancy tombstone was not a priority.

Over time, Tubbs' work has come to the attention of people with ancestors in the little cemeteries. Some have offered money to help cover his costs or to show appreciation. He turns down their money, suggesting instead they spend it on a simple marker.

Tombstones:

A few years ago he found a tombstone company that creates small marble or granite markers. A 6-by-12 inch stone is big enough for three or four lines of 3/4-inch lettering. A smaller one goes on an infant's grave.

Tubbs lets his helpers do the harder work of bending over and picking up. Back problems limit him to a riding mower.

But Tubbs is choosy about whom he lets help. They have to share his belief that a well-kept cemetery honors the memory of those buried there.

His work offers fulfillment and a place to enjoy peace and quiet. "I feel close to my Lord there. I don't have to explain it," he said. "I'm there because I want to be there."

Tubbs is going to keep up the work as long as he can ride a mower.

"This is a project you can take on, and I promise you, nobody will try to take it away from you," he said.