Stories, not records, tell Hilldale Cemetery's past

August 02, 2004|LIZ MAPLES

The people who know the most about Hilldale Cemetery are buried there.

At some point in its history the black community entrusted the cemetery to the city. Now, the city is considering an offer to buy three acres on the south side of Duncan Hill that the community says was set aside for cemetery expansion.

There is no paper trial on Hilldale. A search of courthouse, city hall, funeral home and cemetery records turned up little about the history of the cemetery, which has been around at least since 1806. The best record left is a rapidly fading oral history.

Otis Ford Sr. is one of the last living ones who remembers anything first-hand about the history of the graveyard.

It was 1946 and Ford had been out of the military for less than two weeks when he went to work for Danville's street department. Two years later he switched to the cemetery, taking care of Bellvue and Hilldale.


He says the city took care of Hilldale back then, and it was a mess. Wild dewberries and strawberries rambled through the graves. Headstones were scattered here and there. Ford said he went to work straightening it out; plotting out 12-grave lots and putting in cornerstones.

"That was hard work, once I wore out a pair of blue jeans in one day."

He took charge of the cemetery's layout.

"You can shut one eye and those graves are straight as a gun barrel," he said.

Gravediggers used 18-inch spades and worked in pairs. One digging from the head-end, and one from the foot-end. It would take two-and-a-half hours to dig one grave.

Ford said the city owned the cemetery in 1948.

City minutes of a December meeting that year recorded a vote to spend $3,450 to build a four-room caretaker's house at "Duncan Hill Cemetery."

No one knows when the city started taking care of the graveyard

Popular belief had been that the black community handed over the cemetery in 1962 because that was the earliest record the city had of burials there. But Gerald Naylor, city cemetery supervisor, said that the city's earliest record was 1959. Nobody rightly knows when the city started taking care of the graveyard. It could be that the black community and the city shared responsibility for its upkeep.

Records from before 1962 were kept at Smith-Jackson Funeral Home, but it burned in the early 1970s and all the records were reduced to ash. The courthouse has no deed filed for the cemetery. It is uncertain who gave what to the city when.

However, the collective oral history is that the black community gave the city seven acres on the south side of Duncan Hill and three acres on the north side for the cemetery. Could be that the deal was done on a handshake. Could be that the deed exists, but was never filed and is lost. Nobody knows.

One deed was recorded on Nov. 26, 1965, for a transfer of land on the south side of the cemetery from Flem Robinson Davis to the city. But it is unclear if that was the piece of land that Ford remembers the city buying for what is called the new section of the graveyard.

There is no acreage given on the deed, and no price, which was common of deeds at the time.

Ford said he remembered that the city bought the land from a man named "Bud" that lived across the street and raised hogs. Ford said that the man offered to sell it for $2,500, and that the city's appraised it for $33,000, but that the man stuck with his word and only took $2,500.

Ford's father was the first one buried in that section, and he died in 1968.

"John Frank Ford died on a Wednesday and we buried him on Friday," he said. "I went down and gave $90 for the stone."

Knowledge of the cemetery seems to start and end with Ford.

"No one around here remembers when Hilldale started," he said.

Earliest gravestone still standing belongs to Rachel Moore

The earliest gravestone still standing belongs to Rachel Moore, who died Aug. 13, 1806. Those who might have known more about the origins and ownership Hilldale are probably already been buried there.

There is no paperwork that shows that the three acres on the north side of Duncan Hill is supposed to be for a cemetery expansion, but that is what people have always said. Maps in the courthouse show that the cemetery and the land across the street are linked, both with a card that marks the parcels as Hilldale Cemetery. That would seem to indicate that both pieces of property are part of the cemetery.

Resident Query Kenley, who was raised on Duncan Hill and still lives there, has memories of his uncle Ed Graves' white horse being kept on the three acres across the street in the early 1960s, and that it was part of the cemetery property. Graves was a caretaker and he used the horse to pull a wagon when he worked in the cemetery.

Now someone has approached the city about buying those three acres, but city commissioners aren't saying who or what would be built on the property if it were sold.

One thing is sure, the life of the graveyard on the south side of Duncan Hill is short. The cemetery supervisor estimated it had one decade left.

Central Kentucky News Articles