Leader Blues

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

TOP STORY >> Firefighters help right headstones

BY PEG KENYON
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Jacksonville’s Bayou Meto Cemetery makes repairs and tries to figure out how to keep vandals away.

Jacksonville firefighters have cleaned up historic Bayou Meto Cemetery, where vandals broke and toppled about 200 headstones last week.

“Boy, they saved our necks,” said a grateful Vestal Johnson, chairman of the Bayou Meto Cemetery board of directors.
Although many of the damaged headstones are being repaired, it’s unlikely the oldest ones will ever be fixed, according to cemetery historian David Brannon.

Saturday morning, Scott Moon, president of the Jack-sonville Firefighters Union, and Scott Teague, another firefighter, along with John-son surveyed the damages caused by vandals who have not yet been arrested. Johnson told firefighters about all the headstones in the back row of the cemetery that were pushed to the ground.

“It’s a crying shame what they did here, but we’re here to do all we can for our citizens,” Moon told The Leader. “We can get him (Johnson) everything from landscapers to front-end loaders.”

Moon, a 14-year veteran of the Jacksonville Fire Department, and Teague, a seven-year veteran, walked the grounds to see the damage first-hand. Johnson, who is retired, pointed to a headstone lying on the ground with only the base to mark the gravesite.

“She was a teacher when I was in elementary school,” Johnson said as he looked at the destruction.

Moon said he could not believe what the vandals had done. “I guess we’re turning into a big city, but this just isn’t normal for Jacksonville,” he lamented. “We’ll be more vigilant from now on.”

Johnson is making plans to repair the damaged headstones. “I believe they call it tiger glue, and it’s expensive,” he told the firefighters.

Over the weekend, firefighters spread the adhesive material onto the exposed bases of approximately 180 headstones.
On Monday, some of the older headstones had sticks propping them up to keep them from tipping over again. Over the weekend, firefighters, coping in the summer’s heat, reattached the headstones to their original bases.

Many of those headstones weighed between 400 and 500 pounds. After spreading the glue, several firefighters lifted the headstones onto their bases.

Meanwhile, Jo Purnell-Johnson of Alaska arrived at the cemetery to visit her father’s grave, which had been spared. “I’m shocked…this is Arkansas and I thought this was the land of pride.”

Jerry O’Riley, who accompanied Pumell-Johnson to the cemetery, was also saddened by the possible loss of older headstones.

“They hit the 1800s’ headstones,” O’Riley said. “That’s a piece of history gone.”

As chairman of the local cemetery board, Johnson estimated there could only be about a 10 percent chance that those buried under the headstones from the 1800s still had living descendants.

Some historic headstones were broken into more than one piece, making chances slim for their repairs to stick.
By Monday, “tiger glue” turned into “gorilla glue,” which cost about $100, according to Johnson.

Either way, plans to shore up security appear necessary considering the damage.

Johnson said there have been problems at the cemetery before, but nothing of the magnitude experienced last week. “Now, we’ve had a little trouble with beer drinkers before,” he said as he pointed to the southeast area of the cemetery.

A plan for installing fences has been underway for about a year, according to Johnson. He estimates it will cost about $150,000 to construct a fence to enclose the cemetery.

But the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation doesn’t want a fence too close to North First Street, which runs along the cemetery. “They wanted us to jut the fence line in, and it wouldn’t be straight across,” Johnson said.

But Johnson says a compromise is likely. Shrubbery will be placed along a small strip of land on the front section where the historic headstones are located. “I think they thought we might be burying some more people here,” Johnson said ruefully.
Someone visiting from out of state suggested that the cemetery board should operate a dog park there.

A fee could be charged for dog walkers and the cemetery would not only become more secure with increased foot traffic but also increase its income to help with the cemetery’s upkeep.

The Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Virginia makes about $23,000 a year from dog walker fees. Johnson said he would not be opposed to the idea, but the cemetery board would have to vote on the proposal.