In southwest Missouri, man fights to restore rural cemetery

Friday, June 1, 2012 | 3:40 p.m. CDT

JOPLIN — It has taken three years, but James VanFleet has beaten back the brush and brambles that once overpowered the old Miller Cemetery east of Joplin.

The 72-year-old Duenweg resident choked back emotion as he tried to describe the cemetery's condition when he and his wife first found it.

"The people who came here and paved the way for us, they deserve better than that," James VanFleet said.

The couple began a search for the cemetery after his wife, Barb VanFleet, learned that two aunts and an uncle were buried there.

"Her uncle was back to visit from Oregon," he said. "He looked for it but couldn't find it, so we started looking."

They found the cemetery, which is at the end of a private lane off Kenser Road. Then, they located the gravestone of two sisters, Mona and Alice Lawrence, who both died in 1915 of influenza.

"One was 2 (years old) and the other was 5; there was just a single heart-shaped stone for the two of them," James VanFleet said. "When I found it, the stone had fallen over into a depression and was covered by leaves."

He said he has been able to right many of the other stones in the 1.5-acre cemetery.

He said he took on the chore because he "wanted to do something for the people who came and settled this area. ... They had it hard. ... It makes me feel good."

The earliest stone in the cemetery marks the grave of someone who was born in 1797 and died in 1857. The most recent burial was in 1992, James VanFleet said. He said there are about 213 grave sites in the cemetery; not all have headstones because many of the graves of small children were not marked.

"My wife's uncle is one of those; he was stillborn, and there is no stone," he said.

James VanFleet retired after working 33 years for Jefferson Bus Lines and 16 years for U.S. Bank. He said he works at the cemetery most days during the week unless his wife has other chores for him at home.

At one point, he said, he and his wife were discussing the cemetery's condition with workers at the Jasper County Records Center, where information on old cemeteries and other historical information is maintained.

"They were saying one person couldn't clear it, and I thought, 'That's a challenge,'" he said.

"When I started, the brush was so thick I couldn't burn in there," he said. "For two years, I had to haul the brush out to burn it. Last year, I was able to clear off a spot where I could burn for the first time."

Though he enjoys the work, James VanFleet said he wishes others would join him.

"I could use the help," he said.

His effort earned high praise from Marjorie Bull, a former Jasper County clerk who has researched cemeteries in the county and who tries to track the condition of old, rural cemeteries. Bull organized a workday at Miller Cemetery when it was overgrown years ago. Volunteers provided help at the time.

"They cleaned up parts I had never seen, and this man has done so much more," she said of James VanFleet.

Bull said she is concerned that the old cemetery may be in further jeopardy because it doesn't drain well due to work done on nearby properties.

Bull knows what it takes to clear a cemetery that has been abandoned. She said it took her and her daughter six years to clear the brush out of Gray Cemetery near Carthage. Her great-grandfather, a Civil War soldier, and other ancestors are buried there.

"We worked in the winter because I don't do snakes," Bull said. "We finally formed an association and collected money to help with maintenance."

That is the practice at some rural cemeteries. Most of those in incorporated areas are taken care of by the community, the owner or other groups.

"There's 101 cemeteries in Jasper County, counting all the ones in cities and towns and those out in the country," Bull said. "I really think first class counties ought to have a tax or something to make sure that all of them are taken care of."

Bull said that old, abandoned cemeteries are protected by state law, even when they are surrounded by private property. Grave sites cannot be disturbed, and relatives and others must be allowed to visit.

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