Welcome to the latest installment of “What Is That?” Today we’re off to a cemetery in a highway interchange. So that’s kind of different.
Today’s inquiry comes from Austinite Sherry Statman who thinks she’s come across bodies buried near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Maybe you’ve seen them, too, kind of a final resting place on final approach.
“Driving through the ABIA/71/183 construction soup, I thought I saw an old cemetery in the median among all the supplies and equipment and all kinds of other road stuff,” Statman told me.
“Last trip, through the area, I wasn’t driving and could pay extra attention. Sure enough, there’s a tiny cemetery sitting there buttressed on all sides by highways. At present, it’s overgrown and looks like it’s got a temporary fence around it.”
My first thought was, “Who is she to judge?” Turns out she is exactly the person to judge. Statman is a judge, the presiding one in Austin Municipal Court.
“Who were these people and how did they end up resting in peace smack in the middle of one of the busiest interchanges in Austin?” she asked. “I was wondering if you might know or be able to find out. There’s got to be an interesting story in there.”
Hmm. And yes, your municipal honor, there is an interesting story in that cemetery smack in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Austin: Turns out these people died of old age, many years ago, while awaiting completion of road projects that began when they were toddlers.
We can expect similar burials along the whimsically named “MoPac Improvement Project.”
So there’s your answer, judge. And, no, I wasn’t under oath when I gave it.
I didn’t initially know the real answer. But I know a guy who does. Judge Statman, meet Ben Wear, American-Statesman transportation reporter extraordinaire. On a recent Friday, with Wear at the wheel and the judge riding shotgun, I sat in the back as we headed out for a joint Statman/Statesman investigation.
I enjoyed watching Wear drive with the additional pressure of having a municipal judge, albeit disguised as a regular person, sitting next to him.
“I’ve changed into jeans so I don’t look very judgey right now,” Statman said when I called to tell her we were out front and ready to go.
Having seen her on the bench, I knew I’d recognize her. And if not, there’s this helpful note when you do a Yahoo search for “Judge Statman Austin.” The little blurb under the first hit, which is for the official city of Austin website, says, “Presiding Judge Sherry Statman, female with blond hair.” Accurate, but odd.
The judge, dressed as a civilian, caused Wear, concerned he might have run a red light, to say at one point, “I forgot I was with a municipal judge.”
At another intersection, Wear, unchallenged by anyone, felt the need to enter this plea, “I entered on yellow.”
“Tell it to the judge,” I said.
“I just did,” he said, then inquired as to whether, as a municipal judge, Statman can issue tickets.
She said she cannot and we continued.
When we got to the scene, Wear shared his knowledge, much of it based on research he’d done back in 2005 when he wrote a column about this odd little and exclusive final resting place.
“A cemetery, in an interchange,” is what Wear called it back in 2005. It is the Davidson-Littlepage Cemetery, established in 1856, according to its Texas Historical Commission sign. But that’s all it says. The facts about the five people buried at Davidson-Littlepage were left to Wear’s research.
Among those interred at the interchange are Susan V. (1804-1870) and Martha E. Littlepage (1837-1868). There also are three members of the Davidson family: James A. (1836-1856), Martha (1816-1864) and Lavinia, who died in 1857. Lavinia was the great-great grandmother of James White, owner of the Broken Spoke dance hall on South Lamar Boulevard in South Austin.
Another historical note: Lavinia Davidson was married to J.E. Campbell. He bought 5,000 acres near Barton Creek and is the namesake of Campbell’s Hole, a popular swimming spot.
Susan V. Littlepage’s grandson was James N. Littlepage, the only Austin police chief killed on duty, gunned down in 1928.
The Texas Department of Transportation decided to preserve the little cemetery in the 1960s during an upgrading of the old Bastrop Highway. The cemetery’s historical designation was added in 2002.
Dee Anne Heath of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the shepherds of the current road project at that site, said a temporary outer fence that prevents access to the graves was added out of an abundance of caution during construction, the first phase of which is due for fall 2019 completion with “substantial compliance” of the whole thing penciled in for fall 2020.
It’s kind of difficult to see the headstones, and please be careful if you pull off the highway to try.
Heath said the overall project design was “slightly changed to ensure we push farther away from that cemetery.”
“We are going to make sure that cemetery is not disturbed in anyway,” she said. “We have so many of those in our precious little town,” said Heath, an Austin native. “We have these weird things we just have to protect.”
Back in 2005, Wear wrote about the interchange changes to come, noting, “Death will get even noisier for the Littlepages and Davidsons, but state officials pledge that the cemetery will remain there.”
It has and it will.
“So this is the seat of much history,” Statman said after getting Wear’s tour of the cemetery, “right here in the middle of this busy intersection.”
We spent a few minutes there and Wear drove the judge back to her Municipal Court office downtown. As she left the car, she said she’s looking into the “female with blond hair” reference on the internet.
And she offered this jurist’s lament: “No one wants to visit me at work.”
Thanks, judge, for the ‘What Is That?” submission. Who else has one?
See video with this column at mystatesman.com