COLUMBIA —When Fonda and Paul Smith moved to a house near Centralia in the winter of 1988, they were looking forward to living in a place with more trees than people. That first spring in their new home, they walked along a small trail behind the house and discovered they had more company than they'd realized.
There, in a hilly woods, were more than 150 known graves, some dating as far back as the 1820s.
Since then, Fonda Smith has been the "unofficial" caretaker of the Far West cemetery. She tries to mow an acre of the grounds every month, clearing away brush and weeds that can damage the tombstones.
"I’ve always had a fascination with cemeteries," Fonda said.
Fonda does not own the land, but she feels an obligation to preserve the history. The care the Far West cemetery gets from her is more the exception than the rule in Boone County, where many small cemeteries are disappearing with no one to battle back the bushes and weeds.
"It’s just part of the past," Fonda said. "They don’t make headstones like (the ones in Far West) anymore. Those are long gone."
Although a road runs alongside the cemetery, vegetation now conceals most of the stones from view. Only a small, rusty, white sign marks the name "Far West" on a scrawny tree at the front of the cemetery.
"It’s just an old cemetery, and I just feel like it needs to be mowed," Fonda said. "No one else claims or takes care of it, so I try to do what I can."
Remembering the past
In the spring, Fonda often walks beyond the cemetery and into the forest behind it where a row of daffodils grows in the center. At the end of each row are two sets of steps — one entryway for women and the other for men who once attended the Far West Christian Church there in the mid-19th century.
"Back in the old days, they didn’t want conflict with men and women and stuff," Fonda said.
The church began as a meetinghouse in the 1850s for the community in hopes that later a minister would provide services to "improve the moral tone of the community," according to the "History of Boone County" cited online by genealogical researcher Charlotte Ramsey. Later, volunteers from the local community constructed the final church building. The year was 1880, and the tab for construction was $700.
But during the 1950s, much of what was known about the church was lost in a fire that destroyed the building, according to an article Ramsey cites from the Centralia Fireside Guard. Today’s Far West cemetery is the only reminder of this history, with graves of founding members lining the hillside cemetery.
"The designs on them are really interesting, and it’s neat to see how old they are," Paul said.
In one corner of the cemetery, a tall red tombstone with the name "Kelly" draws the eye among the deteriorating tombstones. On the opposite end, a small concrete block marks the burial place of a 5-day-old baby. Etched by hand, it is barely legible, except for the word "borned."
With much of the history of the cemetery forgotten, Fonda and Paul, who are both 56, have only seen a handful of people visit over the years.
When they first moved into the neighborhood, two elderly women frequently took care of the grounds. They would pull up to the cemetery, unload their push mower from the trunk of their car and spend the entire day under the sun, clearing away brush.
"They worked like crazy," Paul said. "Imagine, with a push mower!"
Eventually, the two women stopped coming, and Fonda and her family took over.
"It’s just bones here," Paul said. "People died and went to heaven, or wherever. And they’re not here. It’s just quiet, and you try to be respectful whenever we’re over here."
The most frequent visitors are people researching family history, including one man who taught Fonda how to "witch" for a grave with a wire. He took her around the cemetery, and when they came across an unmarked grave, the wire would turn sideways.
"It made me an official witch," Fonda said.
Paul recalls an older man with Alzheimer’s who used to bring his children to visit his uncle’s grave.
"He couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast, but he’d come right here, and he knew exactly where that headstone was at," Paul said. "He would get out of the car and just leave them, just walk up here."
Fonda sees a generation gap, where cemeteries are concerned. "People still have interest in the cemetery — just not very many," she said. "I think the young people don’t care so much. It’s when you get older that you are more into your heritage."
David Sapp, former president of the Genealogical Society of Central Missouri, has created a database of more than 250 cemeteries, specifically small cemeteries, in Boone County for the past 15 years.
He said about 200 of these are not being maintained and are in danger of disappearing, including 50 that are already extinct – “literally gone” with only maps or records as evidence.
"All the big cemeteries are where, by the numbers, most people are being buried, but the small family ones, and including church cemeteries, are being lost at a very rapid rate," Sapp said. "There is no central group and certainly no governmental responsibility for any of these places, so it’s easy to neglect it."
Memorial Funeral Home and Memorial Park Cemetery Location Manager Justin O’Neal has five full-time grounds crew members who take care of the cemetery’s day-to-day management. About 85-90 percent of their clients choose burials at their cemetery, a perpetual-care site that will always be maintained.
Only a small percentage of their clients choose to be buried in smaller cemeteries, without constant maintenance, near their loved ones or their homes.
Sapp said that small cemeteries, like Far West, could easily disappear in the next 20 years if they are not maintained. He attributes their rapid deterioration to urban development, agriculture and sheer neglect. Small family cemeteries are common on farms, but farming needs or animals tend to destroy these fragile graves.
Fonda has recently seen evidence of the fragility of the Far West stones. Sometime between May 30 and July 4, about 14 tombstones were toppled in the cemetery, leaving many of the 100-year-old stones knocked off their bases. Although Fonda reported the incident, no one has been charged for the crime.
"I was ticked," Fonda said. "It’s just disrespectful. Why would they want to destroy a piece of history?"
Sapp said maintaining small cemeteries is a constant struggle, and he applauds Fonda’s work at Far West.
"If I had people buried there, I would certainly want to be able to visit their grave sites," Sapp said. "For descendants, there is something that is hard to put into words about being at the cemetery, at the graves of a grandparent or a great-grandparent or a great-great-grandparent, and of course that is what those cemeteries are for."
Fonda and Paul plan to work together with family and friends in early September to have the gravestones upright again. Paul has contacted Audsley Monument Company for advice about resetting the stones, and the company has offered to help.
It's become personal for Paul and Fonda. When her father died unexpectedly in 1989, the family decided to bury him in the far corner of the cemetery, under the shade of tall oak trees. Her father disliked large public cemeteries, and they thought a small cemetery like Far West would suit him.
The family later decided to also bury her mother and one of her sisters alongside her father. Her brother-in-law added a small gray bench next to the family plot so others can sit peacefully while visiting their loved ones.
In a very real sense, Far West has become a family cemetery for Fonda.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.