Five weathered wooden headstones. They stand out in the fields of marble, granite, concrete, iron and limestone, surrounded by trees, shrubs, grass and flowers.
All for young boys who died in the 1880s. The were buried in the Rumsey family plot at Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery.
“They are now very hard to read due to weathering,” says Leslie Wolfenden, one of the editors of “Austin’s Historic Oakwood Cemetery,” recently published by the Save Austin’s Cemeteries advocacy group. “These are my favorites because they have withstood the test of time, and are poignant in the ages of the children. They have suffered from rot, insects and weed whackers.”
In fact, much of the graveyard — Austin’s first — has suffered from neglect or abuse at one time or another. That’s why Wolfenden, co-editors Kay Boyd and Megan Spencer — as well as other contributors — have joined forces to help stabilize, preserve and promote the quiet spot, split by Comal Street between East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East 14th Street.
“Give it the care that it deserves,” pleads Boyd, whose ancestors include a Swedish immigrant who was buried there in 1886. “We consider Oakwood an outside museum of non-replaceable monuments.”
The first thing the visitor notices on a casual walk through the burial grounds is the long procession of familiar family names: Zilker, Bergstrom, Pease, Hancock, Anderson, Caswell, Mueller, Littlefield, Givens, Palm, Fulmore, Gracy, Metz, Scarbrough, Faulk, Woolridge, Steck, Bremond, Lamme. Austinites immediately associate these names with airports, parks, streets, schools, businesses and historic structures.
A more careful look reveals family names that, even if not as familiar, are closely associated with state and local history: Hannig, Dickinson, Swisher, Shivers, Satterwhite, Nalle, Kreisle, Porter, Long, Doyle, Hogg, Bickler, Hirschfeld.
“Oakwood Cemetery is one of the state’s most important sites,” says Kim McKnight, architectural historian for Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. “When the cemetery was established in 1839, Austin was capital of the Republic of Texas, then an independent sovereign nation. Oakwood Cemetery was established before the French Legation or the Texas State Cemetery. Many notable leaders were laid to rest there, including Texas governors Elisha Pease, Oran Roberts and James Hogg. Jacob Fontaine, an important and early leader in Austin’s African-American community and a founder of the St. John Regular Missionary Baptist Association, is among those buried at Oakwood.”
The first person interred here, in 1839, was a slave killed by Native Americans on his way back to Austin from Bastrop. The first fully recorded burial, in 1841, was of George Logan, although the location of his grave is not known. George Dolson and John Black, also killed by Native Americans, lie in the oldest identifiable graves. They died in 1842.
And while the Austin area eventually hosted more than a dozen historical cemeteries, some of them designated for a particular race or religion, in the early days almost everyone ended up at Oakwood. Wealth and social status, or the lack thereof, didn’t matter.
Even so, the dead were segregated, as they often were in life. According to sexton records, Latinos ended up in the “Mexican Grounds” or “Pauper Section,” and African-Americans were buried in the “Negro grave yard” or “Colored ground.” Separated, according to Jewish tradition, by an iron fence, “Beth Israel I” and “Beth Israel II” have been tended by the Temple Beth Israel congregation since 1876.
According to a historical marker, the state of Texas turned Oakwood over to the city of Austin 1856. Its name changed over the years from “City Cemetery” (1886) to “Austin City Cemetery” (1903) and “Oakwood” (1912). The city didn’t assume permanent care, however, until 1970. It is now an Austin park.
“I think because I am a native Austinite, I feel a connection through history with Oakwood,” says Jan Root, who works at the Texas Land Office and contributed to the book. “I worked at the Austin History Center for 18 years, and a lot of the names you see in Oakwood are very familiar to me. I used to see them every day at work. Sort of a ‘disjointed connection’ in a way.”
Stories behind the stories
The value of “Austin’s Historic Oakwood Cemetery” — beyond the intended advocacy, especially for the lovely, partially salvaged chapel — is clear in the entries about selective memorials, which serve as a sort of biographical dictionary for early Austin.
Every page reveals something fresh about historically familiar characters.
Joseph Nalle’s name adorns the Paramount Theatre, originally the Majestic Theatre, built in 1915. Did you know that he fought in the Civil War under Robert E. Lee, started his own lumber company on East Sixth Street, fathered a business-minded brood, served on the Board of Aldermen, and was acquitted of murder after stabbing T.J. Markley twice during an argument about whether the city should build a butcher’s market? He got off because he weighed 119 pounds to Markley’s 162.
Not a few Austinites died violent deaths in the 19th century.
For example, Andrew Hopkins, a carpenter and undertaker, passed away on the same day as his son, Constantine, July 9, 1863.
“Mrs. Ormsby had complained to her husband about being pestered by Andrew Hopkins,” the book’s entry reads. “T.D. Ormbsy first shot Hopkins, then killed a bystander named Mether. When Hopkins’ son went after Ormsby, he was also killed near Congress Avenue and Pecan Street (now Sixth Street). Ormsby rode off and never went to trial for the three murders.”
“Every one of the markers has a story to tell,” Boyd says. “There are many that are touching — children who died way too young, and women who left behind husbands and families. The stone of Clarissa Collins is moving because it shows a father and child visiting the mother’s grave.”
A master plan is underway to salvage this beautiful place, now rough around the edges. Save Austin’s Cemeteries is taking a cautious approach, emphasizing research, stabilization and public education for now.
“A big part of this is to change how people and the city view its cemeteries,” Wolfenden says. “They are not just places for the dead, but also places for the living. … People go to places like New Orleans and Paris just to see the historic cemeteries. Texas schoolchildren go on field trips to the State Cemetery, why not go to Oakwood? Or to (historically African-American) Evergreen? To learn more about Austin and Texas history.”