Cemetery is a vital part of the community

Published on February 22, 2013 with No Comments

It was 8:30 on a chilly Saturday morning, when many teenagers were home in bed.

But more than 60 volunteers were busy raking, mowing and trimming Milton Benevolent Cemetery. The volunteers, mostly from Milton High School’s Navy Junior ROTC program, were keeping a commitment to the cemetery, which has been in existence for more than 100 years.

“We get quite a bit of work done,” said Jeff Dyer, the instructor, who feels the periodic cleanups teach the students about citizenship and “the need to give back to community.”

Bill Bledsoe was delighted to see the hard-working youths, who are part of the effort to improve the cemetery bordering Chavers Street and Berryhill Street.

“We need help,” said Bledsoe, manager of the cemetery, which covers just under 15 acres and has more than 3,000 graves, including 100 to 150 that are still available.

The cemetery traces back to the 1870s, when a sea captain donated the land to a private association. But over time, maintenance dwindled as people died or moved away or lost interest. It’s a problem nationwide, with many private cemeteries neglected and overlooked.

Eventually, the City of Milton stepped in, creating a board to oversee the cemetery. The city also donates $3,500 a year to help maintain the once-rural land.

Bledsoe brought experience to the post when he took over management in 2001; he had operated a large cemetery in California, which also made a recovery after a sharp decline.

Milton’s cemetery was in tough shape when Bledsoe,a volunteer, took the reins. Graves were overgrown amidst a tangle of trees, tall grass and weeds.

“Families were afraid to even go in there,” Bledsoe said.

The cleanup efforts, dependent on volunteers and donations, got underway, aided in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan, which knocked out 41 trees and brought in help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Records were improved as people tried to document as many graves as possible. A newsletter, sent twice a year, revived interest and drew some donations. Three families set up trust funds to help with maintenance.

Still, it’s a hard road, which is why volunteers and donations are needed. The cemetery had to lay off its only employee, a part-timer.

“People don’t have the money,” Bledsoe said.

Still, he and others persevere. The students stayed busy, weeding, collecting debris and amassing large bags of trash as the morning weather got warmer.

As Dyer noted, the students also learn some history and get some insights as they work in the graveyard, the final resting place of many Santa Rosa County residents.

There are sea captains, who hauled timber from Bagdad’s lumber mills to Tampa for that city’s construction. There’s one of Florida’s first Supreme Court justices as well as a soldier from the American Revolutionary War and Milton’s first physician, Dr. Castillian Drake, who died in 1884.

The cemetery’s markers also show personality, heartbreak and humor. Statues, flags, toys and other mementoes give hints of the people’s lives and the impact they had.

“Gone to be an angel,” says the tombstone of an infant who died eight days after being born.

“Gone home,” says the marker of a woman’s headstone.

A fire hydrant marks the grave of a former fire chief, a parking meter decorates the grave of a guy with a legendary sense of humor.

On the stone of W.L. “Willie Butler (1926-2002) are these words: “I didn’t miss much.”

Bledsoe said one family holds a reunion at the cemetery every Easter to honor relatives buried there.

Walk through the cemetery, study the graves and think about all the lives and history encapsulated there. Then you will see that the burial ground is a living part of Milton’s history and it needs to be maintained with care.

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